I missed last week because I was traveling and this week was w i l d in terms of global events for get ready for a particularly eventful #foreignpolicyfriday. This week: Catalonia manages to crash right into a crisis everyone watched explode in slow motion; Congress didn't do the dumbest thing possible (for once (I'm kidding (mostly))) on Iran; and China threw a party.
After that referendum in Catalonia on October 1, the Spanish PM asked Catalonia to clarify whether it was actually breaking up with the government in Madrid "for real this time". Catalonia didn't clarify, so Madrid was like, "seriously, if you leave, this is not going to end well" but Catalonia wasn't having it and held a parliamentary vote where 82 out of 135 parliamentarians showed up (it was boycotted by unionists) and voted to declare independence this morning. So, earlier today, Spanish PM Rajoy enacted Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, allowing him to render the regional parliament useless and re-institute rule from Madrid.
The chances that Catalonia will make it on its own as a sovereign nation are slim. Sovereignty doesn't mean as much as it used to, and the financial power Catalonia once wielded (controlling 26% of exports and 19% of GDP compared to only 16% of Spain's population) has dissipated somewhat as business move their legal headquarters to parts of Spain that aren't at risk of being kicked from the EU. Because that's what's gonna happen. Catalonia, alone, would be ejected from the EU, driving off remaining business and investment while trade deals were negotiated. Meanwhile, the UK, US, France, and Germany have all assured Madrid that they would not support an independent Catalonia, so the four biggest players in the West already will not recognize Catalonia -- kind of a deal breaker.
That said, it looks like Madrid is just going to fire Puigdemont and the rest of the separatists and hold elections on December 21st for a new regional parliament. Unfortunately, Madrid's heavy-handling of the crisis has resulted in many people actually becoming more supportive of independence, so it may be just a few short months before we're facing this problem again.
On to Iran! This'll be pretty short, because it's good news for once! Congress took a look at Trump's claim that Iran wasn't living up to the "spirit of the deal" (my favorite reporting on this was from Lawfare: "I called my mortgage company and told them they're not living up to the spirit of our agreement") and said "Hmm. Well they're living up to the ACTUAL deal, but they're not doing all the things we want them to do either... What if we... kept the deal? and did something else to deal with those other problems?" Which they then did by voting in a new piece of legislation in a landslide victory in the House (432-2) imposing new, separate sanctions, unrelated to the JCPOA. This allows the nuclear deal to stay in place and continue to limit Iran's ability to produce fissile nuclear material, while simultaneously dealing with Iran's other misbehavior -- you know, playing with missiles and funding terrorist groups. It remains to be seen what the reaction to this will be, but it's certainly not the worst thing they could have done, and might even be in like the top three most effective things. So, credit where credit is due: good job, Congress.
And #fpfinally, China. Over the course of last weekend and the beginning of this week, the Chinese Communist Party, aka CCP aka The Only Party in China Because Authoritarian Governments Are Inherently Non-Competitive Governing Bodies, held its highly-anticipated, once-every-five-years (is there a word for that?) Party Congress!
TL;DR: China's Xi Jinping led a Party Congress that solidified his power past 2022, freeing him up to pursue other projects without worrying about being replaced, hopefully including dealing with North Korea.
Quick rundown on the CCP: the Chinese Communist Party rules through a system where a bunch of elites get together behind closed doors and make decisions "for the good of the people" by consensus -- almost exactly like the United States! (Just kidding (but only kind of)) Lots of people refer to this as "responsive authoritarianism" and I think of it as a lot like parenting -- parents make all the decisions, and the kids basically have to do whatever the parents say, and it's often unfair, but eating your vegetables/disregarding human rights is good for growth. But, occasionally, if the kids scream and yell enough, the government folds (to an extent).
Every five years, in a process more opaque than picking the Pope, the CCP gets together to reassess its constitution and every other Party Congress they pick a new leader. This year was supposed to be one of those years. Basically, a Chinese "president" (honestly a weak word for how much power he wields) serves two five-year terms, bookended by Party Congresses. At the midterm congress, he taps a successor, who is primed to take over 5 years later -- basically, from the time you get selected to the time you retire, it's 15 years, and there's an unofficial retirement age of 68, so the oldest you can be is like 53 when they choose you. Keep in mind though -- this whole process of selecting a new leader has basically only happened 4 times since Mao, so nothing is set in stone.
Enter Xi Jinping in 2012. Deemed Hu Jintao's successor in 2007, he came in poised to really stick it to corruption and bring China into a new age. He has enacted an anti-corruption campaign that has been more aggressive than any thus far, conveniently taking out his biggest rivals in the Party. Going into this Congress, Xi had one goal: assure his political power. First, he reshuffled the Party's 7-person Standing Committee -- now stacked with Xi's allies. Second, get his name enshrined in the Constitution with a new section -- "Xi Jinping Thought" -- elaborating on his views as guiding policy for the party going forward. Before Xi, only Mao had had his Thoughts included in the Constitution while still in power, and only Mao had had his name associated with Thought with a capital T. Third, Xi ended the Party Congress on Wednesday without a clearly designated successor. As a result, Xi is primed to assume a yet more authoritarian position going forward.
Here is my simple hope: Xi had been letting things quiet down in anticipation of the Congress. It's a delicate process domestically, and any external shocks could disrupt Xi's plan. So, anti-corruption, trade deals, North Korea, had all been sidelined in anticipation. Now, Xi emerges with renewed strength, which he could use to negotiate a peaceful resolution and cooling off of the North Korea crisis. It's a risky play, but if it pays off, he's a hero and master diplomat, able to tame both North Korea and the US. If he fails, we could all die in a nuclear war. I have it on good authority that Xi is too cautious to make such a play, but that same authority also said Xi wouldn't get his name so firmly in the Constitution, so we shall see.
Basically, China will be EXTREMELY interesting to watch for the next five years. Consider that for the next three years, between the US and China, one nation is being led by an invigorated strongman with an agenda to put his nation on top of global politics, and the other is being led by Donald Trump. I said it in 2014 and I'll say it now: China could outstrip the US by 2050, and even that's looking a little long term.