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Spotlight on Russia & East Asia

By Prabasi Nepali
South Korea
The impeachment process of the controversial South Korean President Park Geun-Hye has started, but has not been concluded conclusively. After mass protests on the streets of Seoul, lawmakers last Friday voted overwhelmingly in the National Assembly to impeach the deeply unpopular Park over a corruption scandal. However, the impeachment still requires the final approval from the Constitutional Court, a process that could take months. The ball may be in the Constitutional Court but the delay will not be tolerated by the mass of the people. The ball is now rolling, and the country’s prime minister is now the acting President —- Hwang Kyo-Ahn has become the temporary guardian of the sweeping executive powers of the presidency.
The criminal charges against President Park stemmed from an investigation into a scandal involving her long-time friend, Choi Soon-Sil (daughter of a sect leader who was also Park’s mentor), who is currently awaiting trial for fraud and embezzlement. Park was a suspect in the case as prosecutors consider that she abetted Choi’s efforts to demand donations from large conglomerates like Samsung and Hyundai to the tune of over 20 million dollars.
The impeachment process was triggered and sustained by public outrage at Park’s behavior and collusion, with the weekly mass demonstrations demanding that politicians take a more pro-active role in removing her from office. Although, she has been neutralized, she will still reside in the presidential ‘Blue House’ until the Constitutional Court’s final verdict.
The mass protests now in the seventh week sometimes reached crowds of over a million people. They are to continue until the final court decision to put pressure on the establishment.  Ms. Park still enjoys some support, especially among elderly Koreans, who remain steadfast admirers of her late father, the military dictator  Park Chung-Hee, credited as the architect of South Korea’s  economic transformation – which eventually led to the country being one of Asia’s ‘tiger economies’.
Russia’s Cyber Warfare & US Elections
During the presidential campaign, the Republican candidate frequently railed against what he called the “the rigged election”. Many had raised eyebrows after the FBI Director intervened in the election process less than two weeks before election day, November 8, again highlighting Hillary Clinton’s use of private Email for official work without new evidence of wrongdoing. This cost her many votes –especially in the battleground states, and was probably crucial for her loss. Now adding insult to injury, the CIA has concluded that Russia intervened massively in the 2016 presidential election to help Donald Trump win the White House, and not just to undermine the US electoral system and the democratic process. These have now turned out to be the much vaunted deus ex machine of October of the election cycle. It is now not just a ‘conspiracy theory’, but gargantuan election fraud!
According to The Washington Post, the CIA has identified individuals connected to the Russian government who gave WikiLeaks emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and top Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta. The report accentuates and inflames the increasingly agitated situation in which congressional Republicans find themselves with regard to Russia and Trump. By acknowledging and scrutinizing the increasing evidence of Russian involvement, they openly risk ventilating questions about whether Trump would have won without Russian intervention. It is undeniable that Trump won by a margin of about only 80,000 votes spread across three states, winning each of the decisive states by less than one percentage point!
The nascent mess-up has caught the Republicans between the devil and the deep blue sea. If the Republicans continue to explore the sensitive matter, they risk antagonizing the President-elect and his right-wing/populist following. Trump himself flatly denies any Russian complicity, in spite of his security briefings and mounting evidence: “It could be Russia,” he recently told Time Magazine (which has declared him “Person of the Year, 2016”). “And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.” In spite of his ludicrous attempt to denigrate the Russian hacking as a non-event, the Republican establishment themselves cannot afford to do so. They cannot ignore an antagonistic foreign power that significant majorities of Americans and members of Congress distrust. And indubitable evidence is piling up that Russia wields significant power to wage triumphant cyber-warfare against the United States.
Some prominent Republicans are not taking the new development lying down, although Trump had repeatedly maintained on the campaign trail that he wanted a better relationship with Russia and praised President Vladimir Putin as a strong leader. Republican Senator Lindsay O. Graham of South Carolina was not impressed, and said forcibly: “I’m going after Russia in every way you can go after Russia. I think they’re one of the most destabilizing influences on the world stage. I think they did interfere with our elections, and I want Putin personally to pay the price.” [!] Now, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (Republican/Arizona), who was previously very critical of Trump, has now felt compelled to act decisively. He will work with Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (Republican/North Carolina) on a wide-ranging Senate investigation. Some House Republicans echoed the same narrative. One of Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters, Representative Devin Nunes of California (Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee) convincingly said last Friday that he had no doubt about Russia’s culpability. Another prominent Republican, Representative Michael McCaul of Texas (Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee)   was no less determined: “We cannot allow foreign governments to interfere in our democracy. When they do, we must respond forcefully, publicly and decisively.” Even before his inauguration, it is certain that Trump will embark on a tainted presidency.
Trump’s Choice of Secretary of State Raises Concerns
Trump’s Russian nexus gets even stronger, not to say Byzantine, with the possible nomination of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state. The 64-year-old veteran oil executive has no government or diplomatic experience, but does have the background of dealing with foreign governments, since his company operates in more than 50 countries. But what distinguishes him most are his links with Russia. He negotiated an energy partnership with Putin in 2011 that the Russian president said would be worth as much as $ 500 billion. The next year, he was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship, one of the highest honours that Russia bestows on foreigners. The energy agreement was put on hold when the US levied sanctions against Russia for annexing the Crimea.
Tellerson is very open about his disapproval of sanctions: “we don’t find them to be effective unless they are very well implemented comprehensively and that’s a very hard thing to do.” In addition, they impose very broad collateral damage. Tellerson’s proposed nomination has raised concerns in the US foreign policy and security establishment. Senator John McCain (Republican/Arizona) was very blunt: “Vladimir Putin is a thug, bully and a murderer, and anybody else who describes him as anything else is lying.” [!] Tellerson could have a rough confirmation hearing in committee, and possibly a no vote on the Senate floor.
Trump Challenges Established US China Policy
Trump established his ‘reputation’ as a bull in a china shop by questioning whether the United States had to be bound by its long-standing policy that Taiwan is part of “One China”. He rejected Beijing’s concerns about his decision to accept a ‘congratulatory’ , ‘innocuous’ phone call from Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen, as one of many such courtesy calls from leaders around the world. But this is not how diplomacy works, and his private session with Henry Kissinger seems to have been utterly in vain. His utter lack of a sense of history lies exposed. The call with Trump was the first such official contact with Taiwan by a president-elect or president since President Jimmy Carter switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979, acknowledging Taiwan as part of “One China’.
Taiwan is one of China’s most sensitive policy issues. This Monday, China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang reiterated that China considered the island (a rogue province awaiting unification) a “core interest” that affected China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The ‘One China’ policy was the “political bedrock” for relations with the United States. If this was “compromised or disrupted”, the sound and steady growth in China-US relations and cooperation in major fields would be “out of the question.” The nationalistic (and ‘unofficial’ mouthpiece) Global Times even issued a dire warning if Trump continued with his provocations – China could offer support, even military assistance to US foes and “introduce a series of new Taiwan policies, and may not prioritize peaceful reunification over a military takeover.” Trump may have thought that he is very smart as usual (you can fool all the people, all of the time), but Global Times brought him down to size: “as ignorant of diplomacy as a child.” He has singlehandedly succeeded in destabilizing world politics in general, and the situation in East Asia in particular.

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