Mexico's muzzled, globetrotting former presidents

This weekend brings a major political transition in Mexico, as Enrique Peña Nieto succeeds Felipe Calderón and returns the once-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to the presidency for the first time in more than a decade.

As for Calderón, he already has his next gig lined up: a one-year fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School. The post is interesting in and of itself, but what's more interesting is the fact that Calderón will be joining several of his predecessors in hightailing it out of Mexico after inauguration day. Calderón, the New York Times notes today, may be headed to the United States because his aggressive prosecution of the drug war has made life unsafe for him in Mexico. But he might also be honoring what, over the past several decades, has become something of an unwritten law: getting out of politics -- and, preferably, the country -- upon leaving Mexico's highest office:

Mr. Calderón, who has a wife who has dabbled in politics and three young children, was long expected to leave Mexico, either because of safety considerations or to follow a custom of departing Mexican presidents, who generally do not stay.

"It's a tradition," said Shannon K. O'Neil, senior fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, "to give your successor a little bit of space."

Shortly after leaving the presidency in 1994 under a cloud, Carlos Salinas de Gortari went into self-imposed exile, traveling to New York, Montreal and Havana and finally settling in Dublin. He sought to be named the head of the World Trade Organization, but withdrew after his brother was arrested on charges of ordering the assassination of a Mexican politician.

His successor, Ernesto Zedillo, joined Yale University, his alma mater, as director of the Center for the Study of Globalization.

The exception to the rule? Calderón's predecessor Vicente Fox, who has been uncharacteristically outspoken for a former Mexican leader. Fox remained in Mexico after stepping down in 2006 but vowed to stay silent for a year -- a promise he broke within months. "There is no reason to hold to the anti-democratic rules of those who still live in the authoritarian past," Fox huffed after facing criticism for wading back into public life. "Now that Mexico is a democracy, every citizen has the right to express himself, even a former president." (More recently, Fox riled his political allies by appearing to express support for the PRI -- the very party he ousted from power in 2000.)

In the United States, of course, former presidents approach their retirements in different ways. George W. Bush has avoided politics, while Bill Clinton has remained very much in the game. But it's interesting to think about what things would look like if Mexico's political tradition applied here as well. You always hear chatter about moving to Canada after our presidential campaigns -- imagine if it was coming from the former occupant of the White House.

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Passport

Guest post: Will China go to war in January 2013?

Interesting times indeed. This is a guest post from Michael Auslin, a scholar in Asian and security studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"The provincial government of Hainan Island in south China, which Beijing gives "jurisdiction" over the South China Sea, has announced that starting in January naval patrols have the right to intercept and board ships that "trespass" the Sea's waters, according to Chinese state media. They will also have the authority to force intercepted ships to change course. The South China Sea is not just disputed territory between China and five other claimant nations, but also contains some of the world's busiest shipping lanes.  

Coming just four days after China showed the world its first launch and recovery of a fighter jet from its sole aircraft carrier, and roughly four months after Beijing upgraded a small naval outpost to become a full-fledged military garrison covering the South China Sea, this news seems both logical and stunningly reckless. Already, China's expansive claims to the island territories and waters of the South China Sea have put it at odds with its neighbors and the United States over the past several years. Yet freedom of navigation has always been seen as the one red line with China's growing military strength.  Beijing can threaten Taiwan, oppress Tibet, tussle with Asian neighbors over contested island territory, and build stealth fighters and carrier-killer missiles, but interfering with the world's trade and free navigation was assumed to be the one (plausible) thing that would result in intervention by the U.S. Navy to uphold international law. 

If Beijing is confident enough that the rest of the world won't stand up to its step by-step assertion of power in Asia, then that belief may well be put to the test. Washington pundits have latched on to the idea of "security in the global commons" for several years now, mainly in response to fears that China was becoming strong enough to shift the balance of power in Asia's waters in its favor. While issues like Tibet were largely considered internal to China, the "commons" were used as shorthand for global interests, like freedom on the high seas, that Beijing understood could not be surrendered by the international community. 

More worryingly, this news is also a sign of how things might develop under new leader Xi Jinping, who took power as Communist Party chief just this month. Many have wondered how close Xi is to the People's Liberation Army, or whether the embarrassing scandal involving fallen Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai from this spring would force Xi to show his control early, perhaps by stirring up tension with Japan. Yet a challenge to the bedrock of maritime law that could result in a conflict at sea seems too far even for China's usually cautious leadership. The real question, then, is whether Beijing truly intends to cross the line because it feels strong enough to get away with it, or if this is just more bluster from a regime that continually tests the resolve of nations in Asia.

What these new rules really mean is still vague, and Beijing will probably have to clarify more than it did yesterday, by stating that there was no problem "at present" with other nations freely transiting the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Washington needs to make clear in the strongest possible terms that freedom of navigation won't be interfered with under any circumstances, and that the U.S. Navy will forcibly prevent any ship from being boarded or turned around by Chinese vessels.

If Washington fails to come up with a clear policy and operational plan, and responds sluggishly if China interferes with innocent shipping, then it will lose more credibility in an Asia that is already questioning its staying power, and will undermine President Obama's promise to "rebalance" to the Asia-Pacific.

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