Sunday, February 22, 2009

Hillary Clinton in Asia

Hillary Clinton stepped unwittingly into the middle of an economic and political perfect storm when she disembarked at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport on Feb. 16 on the first leg of her four-nation Asian tour, her first tour abroad as secretary of state.

Could she have anticipated that on her first full day in Tokyo, Japan’s finance minister, Soichi Nakagawa, would suddenly resign following a bizarre episode of appearing to be drunk at a meeting of foreign ministers in Rome, an episode that almost pushed her visit off of the front pages?

When she and President Barack Obama decided to extend an invitation to Prime Minister Taro Aso to visit Washington on February 24, the first foreign leader so honored in the new administration, did they realize they were inviting a leader who is the lamest of lame ducks?

At least they had enough knowledge of the fast-moving developments, to seek out a meeting with Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. As each day passes, it becomes increasingly likely that the next time Clinton visits Japan, Ozawa will be prime minister.

Despite the hubbub, Japanese political leaders were extremely pleased that Clinton decided to make Asia the destination of her first tour abroad and Japan the first stop on that tour. The political classes had been obsessing whether the new administration would “tilt” toward China.
Clinton went a long way toward dispelling that by repeating the mantra that the U.S.-Japan relationship was the “cornerstone” of America’s foreign policy. That was offset by an undercurrent of concern about what demands Washington might place on Japan concerning operations in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

The Japanese worry constantly that Washington will inevitably begin to put the priority on nurturing its relationship with China. This is especially true now that Beijing is considered vital to resolving the global financial crisis, while Japan, with its collapsing economy, is looking less and less like a helpmate.

The day she arrived new economic data showing that Japan’s economy contracting by an annualized 12 percent or more, the gloomiest economic prognosis since the worst days of the oil shock in the 1970s.

Yet in China Clinton publicly thanked the Chinese government for buying so much of America’s debt to help keep America’s economy going. “I appreciate the Chinese government’s continuing confidence in U.S. Treasuries.” China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, said only that Beijing makes its investment decisions on safety, value and liquidity.

Aside from Japan, Clinton and the Obama administration looks out on an region that may be suffering economically but is generally politically favorable to the new administration. In Taiwan, which Clinton did not visit nor could she as secretary of state, the return of the Kuomintang to power in last March’s election means that Obama does not have to worry much about conflicts in the Taiwan Strait.

South Korea’s conservative president Lee Myung-bak was more of a political soul mate to former President George W. Bush. But he has been chastened by a rocky first year in office that has seen his approval ratings fall markedly amidst a steady drumbeat of North Koreans provocations and threats to fire a long-range ballistic missile.

Even before departing for Asia, Clinton clearly telegraphed that she wants to resume the six-party talks along the basic lines of the previous administration, namely holding out to North Korea the prospect of recognition, peace and aid in return for disarmament.

During her brief stop in South Korea, she announced that diplomat Stephen Bosworth would lead the U.S. delegation replacing Christopher Hill, who is headed for Baghdad. Bosworth, a former ambassador to both the Philippines and South Korea, was close to liberal former president Kim Dae-jung, and more in tune with the latter’s “sunshine policy” toward the North.

The effort to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is complicated by uncertainty over who really calls the shots in Pyongyang since Kim Jong-Il suffered a stroke last summer. Clinton alluded to this problem saying that the succession “creates uncertainty” only to be slapped down by Korean authorities worried that such talk might produce even more belligerent talk from North Korea .

Her visit to China was an occasion to tout her commitment to ameliorating global warming. She toured the Taiyanggong Thermal Power Plant near Beijing, a gas-fired power plant that uses sophisticated turbines made by the General Electric Co, and is said to be twice as fuel efficient as coal fired plants China operates, which have vaulted her to the spot as world’s top polluter.

It is revealing that Clinton skipped the annual ASEAN summit meeting in Thailand this week while flying directly to Indonesia from Japan. It may be that Washington is increasingly looking to Indonesia to become its main anchor in Southeast Asia, replacing Thailand.

Thailand is backsliding into military dominated government, cracking down on free expression, and dragging its feet on terrorism. Its politics are becoming turbulent and unpredictable – witness the closure of Bangkok’s new international airport last year. It has its own impending succession crisis when King Bhumibol, now 81, passes from the scene.

Meanwhile, Indonesia has emerged from decades of single-man rule to become a vibrant democracy. It has an important role to play in the global energy supply and has been remarkably successful in combating radical Islamic terrorism. All this makes Indonesia, with its 200 million, largely Muslim population, worth cultivating.

Of course, it is not lost on anyone that when President Barack Obama inevitably visits the country, the 200 million Indonesians will go into a collective swoon. Never have they witnessed the spectacle of a U.S. president who lived among hem for several years, speaks some Indonesian and likes gado gado.

Everywhere she went in Indonesia, Clinton was asked “when is Obama coming?” No public commitments were made, but it is a good bet that he might visit Indonesia in November, since the annual APEC meeting, to which U.S. presidents usually attend, is being held this year in neighboring Singapore.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The New Boat People

Can there be a more retched minority people anywhere that the Rohingyas? Of course, they’ve been treated abominably for years, but it wasn’t until Thailand began pushing their leaking boats back out to sea, leaving them adrift, that they finally impinged on the world’s conscience.

Fortunately, some have made it to Aceh in Indonesia, where the Indonesian Navy has been behaving with some more humanity than the Thais in rescuing the boats at sea and taking them ashore at as refugees. Being mostly a Muslim nation, Indonesians have at least some sympathy for their fellow Muslims.

The Rohingyas live mostly in the northern Myanmar state of Rakhine (formerly Arakan), close to the border with Bangladesh. The Rohingya population in Myanmar is estimated at about 750,000. Many thousands more live as refugees in Bangladesh or they have migrated elsewhere in South Asia and in the Middle East.

In ethnic terms, the Rohingyas are similar to Bengalis, speaking a dialect of Bengali, as well as other dark-skinned peoples of South Asia. They were converted to Islam by Arab traders and form the only significant Muslim population in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.

Though considered one of Myanmar’s more than 100 indigenous peoples at independence, the Rohingyas were stripped of citizenship in 1982, becoming stateless. They are also subject to other discrimination, such as travel restrictions and limits on education.

They are discriminated partly on account of their religion but also because of their dark skin. They are often called kulas – a word meaning black.) Just how unapologetically racist Myanmar can be was demonstrated recently in an astonishingly insensitive letter circulated in Hong Kong by Myanmar’s Consul-General Ye Mint Aung.

In a Dear Colleagues letter, Ye tried to set the record straight about Rohingyas:
“In reality, Rohingas are neither ‘Myanmar people’ nor a Myanmar’s ethnic group. You will see in their photos that their complexion is ‘dark brown’. The complexion of Myanmar people is fair and soft, good looking as well. (My complexion is a typical genuine one of a Myanmar gentleman, and you will accept how handsome your colleague Mr. Ye is”

“It is quite different from what you have read in the papers. (They are as ugly as ogres.)”
Nobody, it seems has covered themselves with glory in this episode, with the possible exception of Indonesia. Thailand claims to be loathe to take on any more economic refugees, and it does play host to large numbers of refugees from Myanmar’s unending wars against other ethnic groups such as the Shan and Karen.

At least in that case, theShan and Karen and others are considered to be part of “Myanmar people”, merely rebels. It is only the Rohingyas who seem to have been cast out and treated a stateless people based in part on the belief in racial purity and the superiority of light-skinned peoples.

It has been common to berate China for its support of the military junta. In recent years, however, most of Myanmar’s neighbors have moved into a posture of appeasing the ruling junta. This includes not just Thailand but also India (which used to denounced Myanmar as undemocratic) and even Muslim-majority Malaysia, once sympathetic to fellow Muslims but now increasingly opposed to accepting any more foreign workers.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Powering Planes on Plant Oil

The Boeing 747 belonging to Japan Airlines took off from Tokyo’s busy Haneda Airport on an overcast and rainy day in late January and circled over the Pacific Ocean, powered in part by vegetable oils and pond scum.

It was the last of four demonstration flights that have taken place over the past year in four corners of the world, all using four different blends of biofuels, powering four makes of engines. The purpose, of course, was to determine whether a modern jet liner can fly with a part of its fuel composed of renewable energy.

On landing Captain Kobayashi said that the performance of the bio-fueled engine seemed indistinguishable from the other three engines. That echoed reports from the three previous flights and is exactly what promoters of sustainable aviation fuels want to hear.

The goal said Jennifer Holmgren, director of renewable resources and chemicals for Honeywell UOP, is to develop a “drop-in” generic biofuel. By drop-in she means a fuel that requires no engine modifications and is chemically identical to ordinary jet fuel. It can be used as economic conditions dictate.Nicole Piasecki, president of Boeing Japan, said before the JAL test flight that her company hoped to have biofuel certified for use on “revenue-generating flights” in three to four years.

The JAL test used a blend of 84% camelina oil, 16% jatropha oil and under one percent algae oil. The three biofuels were mixed 50-50 with kerosene in one of the aircraft’s four engines. It was the first demonstration flight using camelina oil and the first one to use a blend of three different biofuels. Put another way, the JAL aircraft was powered by fuel made from feedstock grown in Montana (camelina), Tanzania, (jatropha) and Hawaii (algae oil).

Camelina is a vegetable oil crop grown mostly in the northern plains of the U.S. and western Canada. It is technically a “traditional” vegetable oil crop but is considered a second-generation biofuel as it has little food value and is used primarily as a biofuel feed stock.

It was sourced from Sustainable Oils, a biofuel company based in Bozeman, Mont. and Seattle. Chief Executive Tom Todaro was in Tokyo for the demonstration and said that his company has already contracted with farmers to plant 10,000 acres dedicated to camelina. “The infrastructure is in place”.

“By 2011 we hope to be making 100 million gallons of camelina oil a year and a billion gallons ten years after that. Of course, it will not be in double-digit figures as a percentage of petroleum-based jet fuel used in aviation. But it is a beginning,” he said. The aviation industry consumes about 240 million gallons of jet fuel a day.

Camelina grows on arable land, and thus could be considered as competing with food staples, mainly wheat. But it is now used as a rotation crop, planted on land that is allowed to lie fallow to absorb moisture in dry wheat-growing areas. The crop itself does not require much water. All of the tests so far have been with “second-generation biofuels” that is non-staple food stocks.

Virgin Atlantic in February became the first airline to demonstrate that a commercial aircraft could fly on a biofuel, flying from London to Amsterdam on a partial mix of coconut and babassu oils. Air New Zealand followed up in December using jatropha plant oil, and Continental in Houston flew a two-engine B737, on a mix of jatropha and algae oil.

The results of the four test flights are being watched closely in the industry that is determined to wean itself from ultimately finite supplies of conventional crude oil and shift to renewable and low emission fuels.

Algae oil is the greenest of the biofuels , being 100 percent carbon free, and it does not threaten to displace regular agricultural crops since it is grown on pools of water. However, it is farthest from mass production. Jatropha is said to have about half of the carbon emissions of conventional fuel oils.

The airlines began to look seriously at potential new fuel sources when crude oil prices went through the roof last summer leading some airlines to file for bankruptcy and caused other to find ways to cut costs or and fuel surcharges. Although prices have slackened considerably, the industry does not want to get burned again.

During the one-hour flight the JAL crew put the aircraft through several normal and sub-normal maneuvers, including quickly accelerating, decelerating, and stopping and restarting the engine. This activity conforms with the maneuvers that other test flights have been put through.

All the demonstration flights were taken on jets made by Boeing which has been coordinating all of the tests. “We’re the common thread, enabling the [biofuels] industry,” said Darren Morgan, Director of Biofuels Strategy for the Boeing Commercial Aircraft Co. “We help bring feed stock and fuel processors and airlines together.”

He noted that there had been no untoward incidents in the four demonstration flights so far. “The fuels have met or exceeded expectations.” The JAL test would seem to be in that pattern as well, although that is based mainly on first impressions from the pilots and not a thorough evaluation.