Sunday, April 15, 2018

Iran must be part of the Mid-East solution

Wherever we look in the crisis-torn Middle East today we see Iran.

In Yemen it is backing the Houthi rebel side against a Government supported by its foe, Saudi Arabia; its presence in Syria was the initial factor in turning the tide of civil war in favour of President Bashar al-Assad. It supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian Territories. Israel repeatedly describes Iran as its biggest threat in the region.

Iran’s rise as a major regional power has upset the balance in the Middle East. Since successfully repelling the Western-armed forces of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the 1980-88 war, it has been gradually spreading its military and economic influence.

In this it was hugely assisted by the 2003 United States-led invasion of Iraq that finally removed Saddam and brought Iraq into the Iranian sphere of influence.

One only has to look at the map to see how will placed Iran is to promote its cause. It shares borders with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Turkey. It is within striking range of Saudi Arabia and the other Arab States across the Persian Gulf.

The fear in Middle Eastern capitals and in Washington is that it is determined to be the region’s hegemonic power – a proposition that is intolerable among its rivals for religious and strategic reasons.

Yet in Teheran this development is seen as breaking out of the isolation forced on it by the Western powers and its Sunni Muslim neighbours in the wake of the 1979 Islamic  Revolution — a perfectly reasonable attempt to regain some of the prestige lost by the old Persian Empire.

Its investment in nuclear power, which Israel constantly reminds the world could lead to the development of nuclear weapons, along with the development of a ballistic missile program, are major planks in a strategy to ensure the integrity of the Islamic State is never again threatened either by its neighbours or the West.

Iran’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War to support a major ally in the region was an inevitable result of this strategy, and its success in halting what seemed to be an inevitable rebel victory would have been one of the factors that inspired Russian President Vladimir Putin, also short of allies in this part of the world, to throw his cap into the ring in support of Assad.        

Internally, Iran experiments with a form of democracy, however flawed, and has a limited acceptance of dissent, in contrast to the strictly autocratic regimes of other nations in its neighbourhood, most notably Washington’s staunch ally, Saudi Arabia.

If stability is ever to come to the Middle East there has to be acceptance of Iran as one of the region’s major players; that it has a right to a peaceful nuclear program and to pursue development that will increase the living standards of its 80 million people.

However, there must also be recognition from Tehran that its actions – which it sees as purely defensive – are perceived by its neighbours and the United States as threatening and aggressive. Fundamentally, it must accept that Israel is part of the region and will not be going away.

It is time for all parties to recognise that Iran cannot be dismissed as just one more Middle East problem. It has to be part of the solution.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Is a Trump-Kim summit worth the risk?

Should the summit between United States President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un take place?

It’s a question that is increasingly being asked by journalists and diplomats around the world as they try to fathom the next move between two of the most erratic and unpredictable men who have occupied positions of power in the modern era.

It is usually easy to get a handle on the presidents, prime ministers, secretaries and chairmen who lead their various countries around the world. Some are out-and-out autocrats — dictators whose sole purpose is to cling to power, soaking as much money as possible out of their economies, to be shifted only by death or revolution.

Then there are the democrats, subject to the will of the people at regular elections who come and go with often just the self-serving memoire to mark their passing.

Between the two extremes is a great deal of grey area: Dictators who pretended to be democrats by holding sham or rigged elections; democrats elected in a free vote that get a taste for the perks of the job and decide they will remove any barriers to keeping it by becoming dictators.

The latter group is sometimes a bit more difficult to pick, but that’s why we have diplomats and foreign policy experts to help us get it right.

But in Kim and Trump we have two men who should be easy to categorise, but are in fact giving governments around the world nightmares.

Is Kim softening his role as the absolute autocrat who threatens nuclear annihilation and is willing to slaughter members of his own family who he perceives as threats to his position? Absolutely not.

Yet he has suddenly gone on a charm offensive, sending a team to the South Korean Winter Olympics, travelling to China to meet President Xi Jinping, and preparing for a summit with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in.

And despite one of his famous tweets which expressed admiration for Xi’s recent conversion into a potential president for life, Trump remains, for better or for worse, the elected leader of the most powerful democracy on earth. That isn’t going to change.

Associate Professor at Pusan National University in South Korea, Robert Kelly, is one North Korea expert who believes that a meeting between Kim and Trump is not worth the risk. 

“Trump doesn’t know a great deal about Korea — we know he doesn’t read much, relying on television, and his national security staff is in chaos,” Kelly says, noting that John Bolton, who is said to be in favour of a pre-emptive strike on North Korea, is now the president’s National Security Adviser.

“In contrast, the North Koreans have been working on this stuff for a long time so they are going to come in knowing every detail and they are ready to negotiate down deep into the weeds.”

He believes Kim will initially try to steer away from denuclearisation with lengthy diatribes demanding reparations for US war crimes going back to the Korean War in the 1950s. Something which is bound to test Trump’s notoriously short attention span.

Among Kim’s likely demands once serious negotiations get under way is a total withdrawal of US forces from the Korean Peninsula — bound to send waves of apprehensive though the Government in Seoul.

Perhaps most worrying is Trump’s belief in himself as a deal-maker, possibly leading him to make an off-the-cuff offer “just to get the job done”, which might be totally unacceptable to South Korea and other US allies.

As yet there are no concrete details as to where and when this summit will take place. It is too big a deal to be quietly forgotten, but perhaps an indefinite postponement with lesser officials left to “work on the details” would be best for all.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Africa heads down the path of free trade

The creation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) in the Rwandan capital of Kigali last month could be the most significant development in global economic affairs since the Treaty of Rome set European nations on the same path 62 years ago.

Or it could be an embarrassing failure.

To begin with, let’s look on the bright side.

CFTA aims to bring together all African countries, comprising 1.2 billion people with a combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of more than $4 trillion, into one continental market for goods and services.

This would lead to the free movement of business and money across borders and a massive expansion of intra-African trade.

By conservative estimates the CFTA would add two per cent to Africa’s GDP growth in the largest free trade area (in terms of member States) in the world.

The CFTA is a logical progression from the 17-year-old African Union, whose stated aim is to accelerate the political and socio-economic integration of the continent, with the ambition of eventually developing a customs union, a common market and even a single currency.

Now for a reality check.

Eleven of the continent’s 55 nations have yet to sign up to the deal. Significantly, absentees include South Africa and Nigeria, which together represent 50 per cent of sub-Saharan GDP. Without them the CFTA is dead in the water.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari was initially a supporter, but pulled out of the summit at the last moment citing a need for further consultations with trade unions and business.

South Africa’s Minister for Trade and Industry, Rob Davies, said his country supported CFTA but did not sign immediately “for technical reasons”.

So, both might still come to the party.

There is also the question of government capacity. Many of the nations that signed up to CFTA are operating with extremely weak bureaucracies. Corruption is rife in a number of jurisdictions while others suffer from lack of proper training plans and poor leadership.

Even so, in a world where protectionism is on the rise, there are huge benefits for opening up intra-African trade which currently accounts for just 10 per cent of all commerce on the continent — compare this to 70 per cent for Europe and 25 per cent for South-East Asia.

Whether the Treaty of Kigali will one day rank alongside the Treaty of Rome, or whether it will be remembered as a hopelessly utopian project that was quickly discarded only history can judge.

However, a continent that has been fought over, exploited and parcelled up by outsiders, is taking its future into its own hands — and that is a hopeful sign.   

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Road blocks loom for China’s great initiative

The current stand-off between China and the United States over trade presents a breathing space, and possibly an opportunity, for India to solidify its position in the Asian power game being played out between the two giant nations.

For the moment at least Beijing’s attention is fixed westward, angered by President Donald Trump’s increasingly protectionist stance, struggling to moderate its mercurial neighbour, North Korea, and with an inevitable eye on the manoeuvres of its ‘renegade province’, Taiwan.

This means that, for the moment at least, the momentum is off China’s much heralded Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which New Delhi believes is actually a not so subtle attempt to isolate it by turning its near neighbours into compliant client States.

In fact BRI is currently giving China more headaches than advantages. Clumsy attempts to cajole countries into paying for much of the infrastructure needed for the project have forced many into significant indebtedness to Beijing.

This has led to increased anti-China sentiment among local populations, a questioning of China’s real intentions and a growing feeling that Beijing is not the benevolent provider of largesse it has been trying to portray.

As Shahidul Haque, the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, one of the BRI’s prime targets, pointed out: “There is a need to balance economic integration with sovereignty”.

As if to emphasise this, Bangladesh cancelled a Chinese project to develop a new port at Sonadia in favour of a Japanese offer of a similar project at Matarbari just 25 kilometres away.

This has delighted the Government in New Delhi which viewed Sonadia has a key part of the ‘string or pearls’ strategy to encircle India in its own maritime backyard, as well as threatening its position on the nearby Andaman and Nicobar islands.

However, Bangladesh is just one nation which is beginning to have doubts about the BRI. A report from the Washington-based Centre for Global Development says eight of the 68 countries involved in the project are in grave financial difficulties because of it, with another 15 “significantly or highly vulnerable to debt distress”. 

“Djibouti already owes 82 per cent of its foreign debt to China, while China is expected to account for 71 per cent of Kyrgyzstan’s debt as BRI projects are implemented,” the report stated.

“There is concern that debt problems will create an unfavourable degree of dependency on China as a creditor. Increasing debt, and China's role in managing bilateral debt problems, has already exacerbated internal and bilateral tensions in some BRI countries,” the report continued.

These and other concerns are the subject of intense focus in New Delhi. Realists in the Government of Narendra Modi know that it will be many years before India has the economic and military strength to challenge China, and in the meantime it has to rely on others — and Beijing’s own missteps — while it gets on with the business of catching up. With a little help from its friends this strategy may produce the required results.  

Friday, March 16, 2018

Journalism will survive the digital age

I was surprised to see a series of reports on comments made by the Chief Minister of my old stomping ground, the Australian Capital Territory, dominating my news feed relating to international journalism issues the other morning.

Even more so when I found the CM, Andrew Barr, had launched a tirade partly against my old newspaper, the Canberra Times, and generally against mainstream journalism.

He described the Times as “a joke”, and that it would be only a matter of years before it closed, while the Australian Broadcasting Corporation was relevant only to old fuddy-duddies in their 60s and above.

In Barr’s new world, his message will be presented to the populace via social media channels “and that is the path we are going to be pursuing over the next few years”.

If the Chief Minister thinks he is on to some radically different idea that is going to change the world, he had better think again. For years, Local Government in the United Kingdom has tried to by-pass traditional media through its own in-house publications.

These ‘Town Hall Pravdas’, have been derided as “propaganda sheets designed solely to tell people how great the councils are”. In many cases they have been so one-sided that the UK Government’s Minister for Local Government pronounced them a waste of ratepayers’ money and ordered them restricted to no more than four editions a year.

Barr talks about the “cutting edge of communication” which presumably means his alternative platforms would be digital, given that he believes this is the news source of choice for all but a few old has-beens in his constituency, but while I am not comfortable with the brutality of his words, he does have a point.

To return to the UK, newspapers there are closing at the rate of one a week. Of the publications I have worked on around the world since the 1960s, two have disappeared and one has gone from daily to weekly.

If Barr is right when he says the circulation of the Canberra Times is now about 15,000, that is less than half of what it was when I began to work there in the 1980s.

There is no doubt that hard copy newspapers are facing a crisis, but that does not mean journalism is in crisis. Newspapers may disappear, but journalists will not. If the Chief Minister believes that he will get an open and uncritical route to the people of Canberra via cyberspace, he obviously does not know much about it.

Granted when it comes to news the internet is currently chaotic, but so was the dawn of the newspaper age in the 18th century when consumers had to choose between solid reporting, satire and horrific scandal sheets that could and did, say what they liked about anyone and anything.

It took time (and libel laws) but eventually the more outrageous rags gave way to professional, well researched newspapers. People learned to tell the difference.

So it will be today. More and more people will switch from newspapers to the internet, but increasingly they will favour the sites that provide reliable, well-researched news and comment provided by independent professional journalists, over advertising puffs from organisations that have a barrow to push — either to sell a product or get re-elected.  

Barr may try to dodge his local newspaper, but he will never be able to ignore local journalists.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Hard to believe – but the world is getting better

A United Kingdom Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, once won a General Election — by a landslide — by telling the electorate ‘you’ve never had it so good’.

It would be a brave, or extremely foolish, politician who would dare to say anything like  that today in a world beset by random acts of terrorism,  increasing tensions between nations, a possible trade war and highly unpredictable  international diplomacy.

Yet Macmillan was right when he coined that slogan back in 1959, and continues to be right today.

I pondered this after listening to Canadian philosopher Steven Pinker who asked us to put aside the 24-hour news cycle and the so called counter-enlightenment of United States President Donald Trump and consider the fact that fewer people are dying of disease or hunger, fewer people are living in abject poverty and more are receiving an education than at any time in human history.

This has been a trend in progress at least since the medieval era and has actually been accelerating since the Industrial Revolution.

In a wide-ranging interview, the kernel of Pinker’s argument was this: “It’s just a simple matter of arithmetic. You can’t look at how much there is right now and say it is increasing or decreasing until you compare it with how much took place in the past.

“[Then] you realise how much worse things were in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. We don’t appreciate it now when we concentrate on the remaining horrors, but there were horrific wars such as the Iran-Iraq war, the Soviets in Afghanistan, the war in Vietnam, the partition of India, the Bangladesh war of independence , the Korean War, which killed far more people than even the brutal wars of today.  

“We ought to be aware of the suffering that continues to exist, but we can’t take this as evidence that things have gotten worse unless we remember what happened in the past.”

Pinker goes on to show that in historic terms  global inequality has decreased, democracy has advanced and Governments have become more aware of their responsibilities to the people they serve. The figures are there, and they are undeniable.

Of course this is a massively long-term view, something which is not appreciated by human beings who see the world only in the context of their own lifetimes and perhaps those of their children — and of their immediate environment.

It would be pointless to argue with the inhabitants of Ghouta that the world is steadily improving or, on another scale, remind the residents  of an Australian suburb of the inadequacies of Victorian sewerage systems when their homes are inundated by overflowing stormwater drains during unprecedented rainfall, possibly the result of climate change.  

So the horrors remain, and through the 24 hour news cycle (created by unprecedented advances in technology) we are fully aware for the first time in history of the massive forces at work in the world.

Of course this is daunting, but understanding it is the first step to solving — not to throw up our arms and walk away saying it is all too hard.

In 1959, Macmillan got away with his slogan due to a unique set of circumstances: Memories of World War II and the post-war austerity it created were fading; new schools and hospitals were being built; televisions were going into every home; the United Kingdom still seemed to be a major global player.

Finally ‘Supermac’ (a title he secretly adored) was able to run circles around a weak Opposition that had no answer to his unbounded optimism.   

The stars aligned for Macmillan’s benefit then. Today’s circumstances make it inconceivable they will do so in the short term again, yet that is no reason to abandon efforts to work for a better world, even if that world is one we will probably never see.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Iron man Xi eyes last shreds of dissent

Two stories out of China in the past few days — one given wide international publicity, the other not so much — both aimed at stifling what little dissent remains in this increasingly autocratic and intolerant society.

First the inevitable announcement that the Communist Party will agree to President Xi Jinping remaining in office after his second five-year term expires, removing the constitutional clause that would otherwise force him to retire.

We could all see that coming. Xi has spent his first term gradually tightening his grip on the country. His much publicised war on corruption was nothing more than a planned campaign to rid him of serious rivals. In a country where corruption is endemic, he simply had to choose the right targets.

The fact he made no attempt to groom a successor as past leaders have done finally made his intentions crystal clear. The rubber-stamp Chinese Parliament will be no barrier to his ambitions.

The sycophants have been lined up to promote the decision, with the usual comments about the need for “strong leadership” and “stability”. Why these qualities cannot be found elsewhere in a country of 1.3 billion people is, of course, not canvassed.

No amount of soothing words can hide the fact this is a power grab by a man who, in the tradition of dictators such as Joseph Stalin and Robert Mugabe, has convinced himself his country cannot do without him.

Some observers believe he sees himself as the Mao Zedong for the 21st century. History tells us that Mao made a host of mistakes during his long and unfettered leadership that threw the nation into chaos on more than one occasion.

This appears to have been conveniently forgotten by the legislators apparently eager to hand over supreme power to a single individual for an indefinite period.

The second story comes out of Hong Kong with a proposal by the largest pro-Beijing Party in the Special Administrative Region’s Legislative Council that young people be allowed to serve in the mainland’s Peoples Liberation Army (PLA).

In the one area of China that still maintains some semblance of democracy, this can be seen as a convenient way of dealing with Hong Kong’s disaffected youth who regularly take to the streets to protest at what they see as the steady erosion of their freedoms.

Beijing still feels the need to move carefully here and its Hong Kong agent, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, has been quick to emphasise that service would be voluntary — but once the concept is established that could easily change.

The PLA is no longer the peasant force of former decades and a career could have attractions to some, especially with incentives such as tuition subsidies for further education as a reward for service.

As one commentator said, it might be considered more rewarding than flipping burgers at McDonalds or selling pay television subscriptions to people on the street.

Even so, signing up would also require pledging absolute loyalty to the Chinese flag and the Communist Party and this might be too much for the city’s turbulent youth to swallow.

However, in a contest of wills between supporters of Hong Kong’s freedoms outlined in its 1996 Basic Law and the new iron man in Beijing, it is not hard to see who would win out in the end.