Is dealing with China about to get a lot harder?

This piece in the NYT over the weekend really caught my eye, because it reminds me of this paper that Toby and I finished a draft of not too long ago. Before getting to that, however, the meat of the story about China is that Hu Jintao may not be as “in charge” as he’d like–and as we’d like–him to be, what with the PLA running what is oftentimes its own foreign policy and state-owned enterprises flouting nominal concessions over stopping the piracy of American technology and media. The Times attributes some of this to the impending leadership change (see here for a discussion of those in North Korea), but if current premier doesn’t have enough institutional control over the military when it comes to making foreign policy, then new leadership may or may not change that. The basic problem is that the folks that Hu needs to comply with the deals he strikes internationally don’t feel that they need to, because Hu can’t do much about it. The result?

Divided leadership has made it harder to resolve disputes with China, much less strike grand bargains like the reopening of relations between the two countries under Mao.

I think they’ve got an important point here, and it’s got some interesting implications for what to expect and how we might handle China down the road. Continue reading

Succession politics in North Korea

While it’s clear that I’ve got to find something to write about besides North Korea (soon, soon, I promise), I can’t resist linking this blog entry from FP on a (possibly) budding sibling rivalry between Kim Jong-Un, the successor-designate, and Kim Jong-Nam, the elder son whose partying lifestyle apparently led him to being passed over for the throne this spring.

Named successors are pretty rare things, and when they happen, I’m always reminded of Gordon Tullock’s answer as to why they’re so rare: they’re dangerous, both for the incumbent and the now publicly-named next in line. Tullock argues that designating a successor helps coordinate those who would wish to alter the succession but who, in the absence of a focal point, would have trouble overcoming a basic plotter’s dilemma: I want to topple the king, but I don’t want to be the only one (because then I’m terribly easy to kill). Named successors can help coordinate the opposition or, and I’m thinking aloud here, maybe force the hand of rival claimants to the throne…and this just might have something to do with Kim Jong-Nam throwing wrenches into his younger brother’s plans and, in retaliation, Jong-Un’s reported attempt to have his brother assassinated. The counterfactual, of course, would be that in the absence of a named successor, there would be sufficient uncertainty, given the government’s coercive power, to induce caution on the part of would-be troublemakers who seem willing to move only now, once Jong-Un won the family’s favor.

Why bring this up? Well, if named successions are so dangerous, it begs the question of why they’re used. What did Kim Jong-Il stand to gain from naming the heir apparent? I’m working out an answer, so look for more on this later..

Is North Korea “irrational”? No.

It’s been common for quite some time to call Kim Jong-Il irrational, and North Korea’s well-known ability to keep the world “guessing“—careening from talks to no talks, compliance to noncompliance, calls for aid to sinking ships and lobbing shells across the border—has done little to discourage this kind of talk. However, it’s dead wrong to infer “irrationality” (whatever that means) from unpredictability. In fact, one can argue that, in North Korea’s position, being unpredictable is quite shrewd and, yes, quite rational. Far from delusional or incoherent, I’d go so far as to call North Korea’s actions over Kim Jong-Il’s reign “rationally unpredictable.” What do I mean by that? More after the jump…

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Some quick Sunday thoughts on Korea

While much of the commentary on the most recent round of tensions on the Korean Peninsula seems concerned with why it might escalate to war, I think it’s equally useful at this point to give an accounting of the reasons why it probably won’t. (And, thankfully, there are a few.)

You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that domestic politics in North Korea, what with an impending leadership transition and worsening food shortages, probably has a lot to do with the decision to lob around 180 shells onto a small Yellow Sea island west of the peninsula. Perhaps the Kims feel the need to look “tough” and “in control” in anticipation of the accession of a new, untested leader to the throne of the DPRK. Granting that, though, below the jump are a few reasons why a general war probably won’t be in the offing. (Probably.)

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In the shadow of the successor

It seems that fewer and fewer Russia watchers doubt that Vladimir Putin will find a way to return to the presidency in 2012, and the consensus seems to be that this ain’t gonna be good for the US. Here, we’ve got a case where the US has a pretty good idea of who Russia’s next leader is going to be and what he’s going to be like: a lot more difficult to deal with than the incumbent, Medvedev.

More after the break…

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Leaders, elections, and preemptive bargaining

From the archives. I posted this one around Halloween, and it’s self-promotion of the most blatant sort…

Dan Drezner’s Halloween post on horror, fear, etc. in IR has an interesting tidbit about the Tea Party that reminded me of a chapter in my dissertation that’s currently under review in a (quite drastically) different form. You can find it on the Research page; it’s called “Leadership Turnover as a Commitment Problem.” Drezner makes the point that foreign fear of a Tea Party takeover (and Sarah Palin presidency) might lead other countries to give the United States a little more of what it wants internationally, perhaps to bolster the incumbent and his party in office.

Turns out my paper has a little to say about this, a phenomenon I label “preemptive appeasement.” The story goes something like this: when an incumbent might be followed by a successor I’d rather not deal with, I might try to give the incumbent a “win” in order to help his reelection chances that I’d otherwise by happy to deny him. This does require a few things, though I’ll give the two most relevant: (1) whatever “win” I give him must make a sufficiently large difference in boosting his chances of staying in office (so it’s got to be a salient issue that the voting public really cares about); and (2) the successor mustn’t be too different from the incumbent, lest I just decide to fight a war to lock-in whatever I can before the successor takes office.

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