Lame duck out of the Silk Road caravan

World leaders during the APEC Summit family photo in Beijing November 10, 2014. Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott standing behind Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (2nd L) (Reuters / Kevin Lamarque)

World leaders during the APEC Summit family photo in Beijing November 10, 2014. Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott standing behind Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (2nd L) (Reuters / Kevin Lamarque)

By Pepe Escobar

There’s hardly a more graphic illustration of where the multipolar world is going than what just happened at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing.

Take a very good look at the official photos. This is all about positioning – and this being China, pregnant with symbolic meaning. Guess who’s in the place of honor, side by side with President Xi Jinping. And guess where the lame duck leader of the “indispensable nation” has been relegated. The Chinese can also be masters at sending a global message.

When President Xi urged APEC to “add firewood to the fire of the Asia-Pacific and world economy,” this is what he meant, irrespective of inconclusive decisions out of the summit.

1) Beijing will go no holds barred for the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) – the Chinese vision of an “all inclusive, all-win” trade deal that really promotes Asia-Pacific cooperation, instead of the US-driven, corporate-redacted, and quite divisive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

2) The blueprint is on for “all-round connectivity,” in Xi’s words – which implies Beijing setting up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; Beijing and Moscow committing to a second mega gas deal – this one through the Altai pipeline in Western Siberia; and China already funneling no less than $40 billion to start building the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.

World leaders take their seats as China's President Xi Jinping (C) prepares to deliver opening remarks at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' meeting at the International Convention Center at Yanqi Lake in Beijing, November 11, 2014 (Reuters / Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

World leaders take their seats as China’s President Xi Jinping (C) prepares to deliver opening remarks at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ meeting at the International Convention Center at Yanqi Lake in Beijing, November 11, 2014 (Reuters / Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Once again, everything converges towards the most spectacular, ambitious and wide-ranging pluri-national infrastructure offensive ever attempted: the multiple New Silk Roads – a complex network of high-speed rail, pipelines, ports, fiber optic cables and state of the art telecom that China is already building through the Central Asian -stans, linked to Russia, Iran, Turkey and the Indian Ocean, and branching out to Europe all the way to Venice and Berlin.

That’s Beijing interlinking Xi’s “Asia-Pacific Dream” way beyond East Asia, with eyes set on pan-Eurasia trade – with the center being, what else, the Middle Kingdom.

The “Go West” campaign was officially launched in China in the late 1990s. The New Silk Roads are a turbocharged “Go West” – and “Go South” – expanding markets, markets, markets. Think of near future Eurasia as a massive Chinese Silk Belt – in some latitudes in a condominium with Russia.
You want your war hot or cold?

As Beijing dreams, Noam Chomsky has been very vocal about a 1914-style chain reaction of catastrophic blunders – by the West – that could fast spin out of control; and the stakes, once again, are nuclear. Moscow absolutely abhors this gruesome possibility – and that explains why Russia, under relentless US provocation, as well as sanctions, has exercised titanic restraint. Not only can Russia not be “isolated” as the US attempted with Iran; Moscow also called the US neo-cons’ bluff in Ukraine.

At the Valdai Club meeting in Sochi, President Putin, in a crucial speech (text plus Q&A) obviously ignored by Western corporate media, drew the necessary conclusions. The Washington/Wall Street elites have absolutely no intention of allowing a minimum of multipolarity in international relations. What’s left is chaos. That’s what I’ve been arguing, over different strands, during the Obama administration years, and is at the center of my new book “Empire of Chaos”.

Moscow knows all about the complex interlinks with Europe – especially Germany – and with the still fading, but still influential, Washington Consensus. And yet Russia holds the trump card of being a Eurasian power; when in trouble, there could always be a pivoting to Asia.

Gorbachev was spot on in Berlin when he stressed how, breaking the promise personally made to him by Bush the father, NATO embarked on an eternal eastward expansion; and how the West – essentially the US plus a few European vassals – now seems obsessed in launching a new cold war, with the new Berlin Wall – metaphorically – transplanted to Kiev.

Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders pose for a family photo at the International Convention Center at Yanqi Lake in Beijing, November 11, 2014 (Reuters / Kim Kyung-Hoon)

Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders pose for a family photo at the International Convention Center at Yanqi Lake in Beijing, November 11, 2014 (Reuters / Kim Kyung-Hoon)

Moscow pivoting away from the West and towards East Asia is a process developing on many levels – and for months now, for all to see. Acres of forest can be further devastated to print how the outcome has been directly influenced by Barack Obama’s self-described “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff” foreign policy doctrine, which he christened aboard Air Force One when coming from a trip to – once again – Asia last April.

On energy, the spin by the Financial Times of yet another Russia-China mega gas deal as “Putin’s revenge” is proverbial rubbish. Russia is turning east because that’s where the top demand is. On finance, Moscow has just ended the pegging of the ruble to the US dollar and euro; the US dollar instantly dropped against the ruble. VTB for its part announced it may leave the London Stock Exchange for Shanghai’s – which is about to become directly linked to Hong Kong. And Hong Kong, for its part, is already attracting Russian energy giants.

Now mix these key developments with the massive yuan-ruble energy double deal, and the picture is of Russia actively protecting itself from speculative/politically motivated Western attacks against its currency.

The Russia-China symbiosis/strategic partnership visibly expands on energy, finance and, also inevitably, on the military technology front. That includes, crucially, Moscow selling Beijing the S-400 air defense system and, in the future, the S-500.

The S-500 system can intercept any American ICBMs or cruise missiles, while the Russian ICBMs deployed at Mach 17, equipped with MIRVs, are simply unbeatable. Beijing, for its part, is already developing its own surface-to-ship missiles that can take out everything the US Navy can muster – from aircraft carriers to submarines and mobile air defense systems.
Join the caravan

Strategically, Beijing and Washington could not but be polar opposites in what I called the birth of the Eurasian century.

Beijing has clearly identified Washington/Wall Street fighting to the death to preserve the short unipolar moment. China – and the BRICS – is working towards what Xi defined as a “new model of great power relations.” The Washington/Wall Street mindset is “either/or” instead of “win-win”; the self-appointed Masters of the Universe believe they can always monopolize the loot because Russia – and then China – eventually will back down to avoid confrontation. This is the key aspect of Asia-Pacific today somewhat resembling 1914 Europe.

China's President Xi Jinping delivers opening remarks at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' meeting at the International Convention Center at Yanqi Lake in Beijing, November 11, 2014 (Reuters / Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

China’s President Xi Jinping delivers opening remarks at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ meeting at the International Convention Center at Yanqi Lake in Beijing, November 11, 2014 (Reuters / Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

With this kind of stuff passing for “analysis” in US academic circles, and with the Washington/Wall Street elites through their myopic Think Tank land still clinging to mythical platitudes such as the “historical” American role as arbiter of modern Asia and key balancer of power, no wonder public opinion in the West cannot even imagine the impact of the New Silk Roads in the geopolitics of the young 21st century.

A quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall the US, for all practical purposes, is run by an oligarchy. Europe is geopolitically irrelevant. “Democracy” has been degraded to self-parody in most of the West. “Humanitarian” – as well as neo-con – imperialism in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and beyond has led to disaster after disaster. Financial turbo-capitalism is a time bomb.

Russia and China may not be proposing an alternative system – yet. Still, as the dogs of war, of hate, of inequality – bark, the China-Russia caravan passes. The caravan is selling Eurasia economic integration – not bombs. Real Asia-Pacific integration may still be a long dream away. Yet what APEC has shown – graphically – once again is the spectacular implosion, in slow motion, of the former indispensable nation’s geopolitical dominance.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.
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Defying the dollar Russia & China agree currency swap worth over $20bn

Yuan banknotes (Reuters / Petar Kujundzic)

Yuan banknotes (Reuters / Petar Kujundzic)

Published: October 13, 2014

The central banks of China and Russia have signed a 3-year ruble-yuan currency swap deal up to $25 billion, in order to boost trade using national currencies and lessen dependence on the dollar and euro.

On Monday, China’s Central Bank announced the 150 billion yuan (815 billion ruble) currency swap between the Russian ruble and Chinese yuan. In terms of the Chinese currency that is $24.5 billion, and in Russian rubles, $20.1 billion.

“We need to expand the practice of using national currencies in trade. Currently they only account for 7 percent of turnover,” Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said at the 18th annual Russian-Chinese Commission, also attended by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

The deal is valid for 3 years, and can be extended if both Russia and China agree. The draft currency swap was settled in August, but details on the size of the deal were sketchy.

Using more local currencies will speed up trade between the two countries who are aiming to reach $100 billion by 2015. Trade between Russia and China is already nearly $90 billion and is scheduled to hit $200 billion in the next six years.

Cooperation between Russian and Chinese banks is also on the rise, and China’s Import Export Bank, which is 100% state owned, has pledged to help Russian banks now cut off from Western capital markets, due to the latest round of sanctions.

The Export-Import Bank (Exim) has agreed to establish a credit line equivalent to $2 billion for Russian state bank VTB, and has also signed agreements with VEB (Vnesheconombank), and the Russian Agricultural Bank.

The credit lines can be used to finance imports from China, from agriculture to high tech equipment.

Medvedev and Li signed over 40 other agreements at the meeting, including outlining plans to add another pipeline from Russia to China. Li is in Moscow for a three-day visit.

 

The bullying of Hungary – the country that dared to disobey the US and EU

Reuters / Karoly Arvai

Reuters / Karoly Arvai

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25 years ago, Hungary was being toasted in the West for opening its border with Austria to East Germans, in a move which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now the Western elites are not happy with Budapest which they consider far too independent.

The refusal of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his ruling Fidesz party to join the new US and EU Cold War against Russia, which has seen the Hungarian parliament approving a law to build the South Stream gas pipeline without the approval of the European Union, in addition to the populist economic policies Fidesz has adopted against the largely foreign owned banks and energy companies, has been met with an angry response from Washington and Brussels.

Hungarian officials have been banned from entering the US, while the European Commission has demanded that the Hungarians explain their decision to go ahead with South Stream. That’s on top of the European Commission launching legal action against the Hungarian government for its law restricting the rights of foreigners to buy agricultural land.

The bullying of Hungary hasn’t made many headlines because it’s so-called “democrats” from the West who have been doing the bullying.

Viktor Orban is not a communist, he is a nationally-minded conservative who was an anti-communist activist in the late 1980s, but the attacks on him and his government demonstrate that it doesn’t matter what label you go under – if you don’t do exactly what Uncle Sam and the Euro-elite tell you to do – your country will come under great pressure to conform. And all of course in the name of “freedom” and “democracy.”

Fidesz has been upsetting some powerful people in the West ever since returning to power in 2010. The previous “Socialist”-led administration was hugely popular in the West because it did everything Washington and Brussels and the international banking set wanted. It imposed austerity on ordinary people, it privatized large sections of the economy, and it took out an unnecessary IMF loan. Ironically, the conservative-minded Fidesz party has proved to be much better socialists in power than the big-business and banker friendly “Socialists” they replaced.

One of the first things that Fidesz and its coalition allies, the Christian Democratic People’s Party, (KDNP) did was to introduce an $855m bank tax – the highest such tax in Europe – a measure which had the financial elite foaming at the mouth.

Orban clashed with the IMF too, with his government rejecting new loan terms in 2012, and paying off early a loan taken out by the previous government, to reduce interest payments.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban (Reuters / Bernadett Szabo)

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban (Reuters / Bernadett Szabo)

In 2013, Orban took on the foreign-owned energy giants with his government imposing cuts of over 20% on bills. Neoliberals expressed their outrage at such “interventionist” policies, but under Orban, the economy has improved. Although it’s true that many still look back nostalgically to the days of “goulash communism” in the 1970s and 80s when there were jobs for all and food on the table for everyone. Unemployment fell to 7.4 percent in the third-quarter of this year; it was around 11 percent when Fidesz took power, while real wages rose by 2.9 percent in the year up to July.

The man his enemies called the “Viktator,” has shown that he will pursue whatever economic policies he believes are in his country’s national interest, regardless of the opinions of the western elite who want the Hungarian economy to be geared to their needs.

His refusal to scrap his country’s bank tax is one example; the closer commercial links with Russia are another. Russia is Hungary’s third biggest trading partner and ties between the two countries have strengthened in the last couple of years, to the consternation of western Russophobes. In April, a deal was struck for Moscow to loan Hungary €10 billion to help upgrade its nuclear plant at Paks.

Orban’s policy of improving trade and business links with Russia, while staying a member of the EU and NATO, has however been put under increasing strain by the new hostile policy towards Moscow from Washington and Brussels.

Orban again, has annoyed the West by sticking up for Hungary’s own interests. In May he faced attack when he had the temerity to speak up for the rights of the 200,000 strong Hungarian community living in Ukraine.”Ukraine can neither be stable, nor democratic, if it does not give its minorities, including Hungarians, their due. That is dual citizenship, collective rights and autonomy.” Hungary’s Ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Ministry in Kiev. Donald Tusk, Prime Minister of Poland, the US’s most obedient lapdog in Eastern Europe, called Orban’s comments “unfortunate and disturbing” as if it was anything to do with him or his country.

In August, Orban accurately described the sanctions policy of the West towards Russia as like “shooting oneself in the foot.”“The EU should not only compensate producers somehow, be they Polish, Slovak, Hungarian or Greek, who now have to suffer losses, but the entire sanctions policy should be reconsidered,” Orban said.

In October, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto also questioned the sanctions on Russia, revealing that his country is losing 50 million forints a day due to the policy.

Hungary has made its position clear, but for daring to question EU and US policy, and for its rapprochement with Moscow, the country has been punished.

It’s democratically elected civilian government which enjoys high levels of public support, has ludicrously – and obscenely – been likened to military governments which have massacred their opponents. “From Hungary to Egypt, endless regulations and overt intimidation increasingly target civil society,” declared US President Barack Obama in September.

Last month there was another salvo fired at Hungary – it was announced that the US had banned six unnamed Hungarian government officials from entering America, citing concerns over corruption- without the US providing any proof of the corruption.

RIA Novosti / Ramil Sitdikov

RIA Novosti / Ramil Sitdikov

At a certain point, the situation, if it continues this way, will deteriorate to the extent where it is impossible to work together as an ally,” warned the Charge D’Affaires of the US Embassy in Budapest, Andre Goodfriend. The decision and the failure to provide any evidence, understandably caused outrage in Hungary. “The government of Hungary is somewhat baffled at the events that have unfolded because this is not the way friends deal with issues,” said Janos Lazar, Orban‘s chief of staff.

The timing of the ban has to be noted, coming after the Hungarian government had criticized the sanctions on Russia and just before the national Parliament was due to vote on the South Stream pipeline. The pipeline, which would allow gas to be transported from Russia via the Black Sea and the Balkans to south and central Europe without passing through Ukraine, is a project which Russophobes in the West want cancelled.

“I am inclined to think that it is a punishment for the fact that we talk to Russia,” said Gabor Stier, the head foreign policy editor of the leading Hungarian newspaper Magyar Nemzet.

“America thinks that we are corrupt, but we are a sovereign state, and it is our business. Many people in the United States do not like that Viktor Orban is very independent…..Corruption is just an excuse.”

It’s hard to disagree with Stier’s conclusions. Of course, there is corruption in Hungary, as there is in every country, but it pales in comparison with some countries who are faithful US allies and who Washington never criticizes. The 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by Transparency International, reveals that Latvia, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria and Bosnia-Herzegovina are all below Hungary, as indeed is Italy. Yet it’s Hungarian officials that the US is banning.

True to form, the attacks on Orban and his government in the Western media have chimed with the political attacks. ‘Is Hungary, the EU’s only dictatorship?’ asked Bloomberg View in April. The BBC ran a hostile piece on Orban and Fidesz in October entitled Cracks Emerge in leading party, and which referred to “government corruption” and “the playboy lifestyle of numerous party officials.”

The piece looked forward to the end of Fidesz rule.

While earlier this week, the New York Times published an OpEd by Kati Marton, whose late husband Richard Holbrooke, was a leading US diplomat, entitled Hungary’s Authoritarian Descent. You’d never guess that the Hungarian government wasn’t the flavor of the month in the West would you?

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at their meeting in Budapest (RIA Novosti / Eduard Pesov)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at their meeting in Budapest (RIA Novosti / Eduard Pesov)

The question which has to be asked is: will Hungary be the next country to be the target of a US/EU sponsored regime change?

We all know what happened to the last Viktor who refused to sever links with Russia. Will Orban suffer the same fate as Ukraine’s Yanukovich? There are good reasons for believing that he won’t.

Fidesz did make a mistake by announcing the introduction of a new internet tax last month, which brought thousands onto the streets to protest but they have since dropped the plans and the problem for the US and EU is that Orban and his government remain too popular. In October’s local elections Fidesz won 19 of Hungary’s 21 larger towns and cities, including the capital city Budapest, not bad for a party that‘s been in power since May 2010.

Orban’s brand of economic populism, combined with moderate nationalism, goes down well in a country where people remember just how awful things were when the neoliberal “Socialists” were in power. His style of leadership may be authoritarian, but Hungarians prefer having a leader who has cut fuel bills and reduced unemployment to one who mouths platitudes about “liberal democracy” but who imposed harsh austerity measures and leaves them unable to afford the daily essentials.

Moreover Hungary, is already a member of the EU and NATO unlike Ukraine under Yanukovich and isn’t about to leave either soon. On a recent visit to America Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told the US TODAY newspaper “US is our friend, US is our closest ally.” The US clearly wants more from Hungary than just words, but while both Washington and Brussels would like to see a more obedient government in Budapest, the “liberal” and faux-left parties they support simply don’t have enough popular support for the reasons outlined above. And things would be even worse for the West if the radical nationalist party Jobbik, the third largest party in Parliament, and which made gains in October’s local elections, came to power- or if there was a genuine socialist/communist revival in the country. The fact is that Orban is in a very strong position and he knows it. That’s why he feels able to face down the threats from abroad and maintain a level of independence even though total independence is impossible within the EU and NATO.

We can expect the attacks on Orban and his government to intensify but the more the West attacks, the more popular Orban, who is able to present himself as the defender of Hungary’s national interests, becomes.

Hungary gave the West everything it wanted in 1989, and, as I pointed out here, its “reform” communist leadership was richly rewarded. But in 2014 it’s a very different story. In the interests of democracy and small countries standing up to bullying by powerful elites, long may Hungary’s spirited defiance continue.

Hajra, magyarok! Hajra Magyarorszag! [ Hurrah Hungarians! Hurrah Hungarians! ]