Thursday, February 13, 2014

US thaws ties with Modi

The meeting between the United States Ambassador in New Delhi, Nancy Powell, and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is another indication the international community is accepting that a change of Government is likely when India holds its national elections, due within the next three months.

Modi will be the Prime Ministerial candidate for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which the opinion polls say will replace the ruling Congress coalition led by Rahul Gandhi. However, Powell’s visit had far greater significance than a ‘getting to know you’ routine part of the Ambassador’s diplomatic round.

The Chief Minister is still officially persona non grata in the United States, a visa to visit there cancelled nine years ago because of Modi’s alleged involvement in the infamous Gujarat Hindu-Muslim riots of 2002 in which more than 1,000 people died.

Charges were made at the time that Modi, a devout Hindu, had done nothing to stop the attacks on Muslim communities and may even have encouraged them. Various inquiries have cleared him of complicity while criticising his then fledgling administration for mishandling a volatile situation. However, the mud has stuck.

As recently as last year members of the Indian community in the US successfully forced a university to cancel a planned video address by Modi to a business forum. Then he was still a relative unknown to the Obama Administration, but times are changing.

The fact that Ms Powell met Modi on his home turf in the Gujarat State Capital Gandhinagar is a clear sign that Washington realises it has some catching up to do. More than a year ago Ambassadors from the European Union countries feted Modi at a lunch and in 2012 British High Commissioner James Bevan met the Chief Minister, officially ending a 10-year ban on links.  

Modi and the US envoy were reported to have had a wide-ranging discussion, including human rights issues, terrorism and Afghanistan where Washington hopes India will play a bigger role after its own forces withdraw at the end of the year.

Not on the agenda, apparently, was the revocation of the visa ban. That will probably wait until after the election as to do anything now might be interpreted as the US favouring one side over the other. But if, as expected, Modi is the winner, an invitation to Washington will surely not be long in coming.    



Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Danger in denigrating Nazi strip show

Critics of the Nazi strip show at Canberra’s National Multicultural Fringe Festival are not only being a little precious and, dare I say it, provincial in their outrage, they are advocating a dangerous path for the future.

It would seem from their comments that any entertainment with a Nazi theme must be anti-Semitic and therefore condemned. They appear to want Hitler and his cohorts to be buried in history, never mentioned except perhaps in bland documentaries and the occasional academic paper.

But to turn our backs on the era would be the height of folly. Young people by and large are not particularly interested in documentaries or history books, but they do attend events such as the Fringe Festival and for some on that night it may well have been the first time they ever had to think about Nazism and Hitler.

Far better that it should be a strip show that clearly lampoons the fuehrer than at a street corner listening to the rantings of some potential demagogue. As World War II and its origins fade from living memory, there is a dangerous vacuum being created that is already being filled by Holocaust deniers and those who would seek to twist the Nazi philosophy for their own purposes.

I know an American diplomat, who some years ago was packing up her Washington flat in preparation for an overseas posting and had secured help from the daughter of a friend, a bright girl on holiday from her university.

As she was helping she noticed some books on the Holocaust on the diplomat’s shelves. “Why do you have that rubbish – it never happened you know,” she said.   

I have no wish to comment on the good taste or otherwise of the skit – except to say that tastes change and there are television shows now where the language would have burned the ears off a viewer in the 1970s – but what the audience apparently saw was a girl dressed up as a silly little man with a moustache who stripped down to her undies. Hardly promotional material for a Fourth Reich.

There is one acid test for whether this performance in any way promotes Nazism: What would have happened to the organisers if they had put it on in Hamburg in 1938?

I don’t think they would have been awarded the Iron Cross.


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Keeping safe from the elephants

A recent article by a South Korean defence analyst, advocating ‘middle-power cooperation’ between his country and India as part of a check on China’s expansionist ambitions, has added a new dimension to the tense political climate of South and East Asia.

Retired navy captain Sukjoon Yoon, now a Fellow at the Korea Institute of Maritime Strategy, believes the United States’ long-standing commitment to Asia is faltering and that its much-heralded ‘pivot’ to the region is just so much rhetoric to cover an exit strategy.

He sees Beijing taking advantage of its rival’s ambiguous position to push the envelope, maybe even declaring a “Chinese version of the Monroe Doctrine” as part of its plan to re-establish its former dominance over the area.

The original Monroe Doctrine, introduced by US President James Monroe in 1823, stated that further efforts by European powers to interfere with nations in the Americas would be viewed by Washington as acts of aggression.

Dr Yoon says China has been unwilling to tolerate third-party involvement in its disputes with weaker nations in the South China Sea, East China Sea and Yellow Sea. “Such assertiveness is disturbingly reminiscent of the regional order that prevailed during the Middle Kingdom era.”

While South Korea has problems with China’s seaward expansion, India is feeling pressure from its giant neighbour on its land boundaries, Dr Yoon maintains. He points to last year’s intrusion by Chinese troops 19 kilometres into Indian territory beyond the Line of Actual Control which marks the provisional border between the two countries.

South Korea and India appear to be moving in the direction he suggests. Last June Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sent a special envoy to Seoul and South Korean President Park Geun-hye has just completed a visit to New Delhi. 

In an adaptation of the African proverb ‘when elephants fight the grass gets trampled’, Dr Yoon says middle-power cooperation is necessary if the smaller nations of Asia are not to be marginalised by issues between China, Japan and the US.

“Middle-power cooperation is an overarching concept by which Asian nations, with their diverse and disparate interests, can bridge wide gaps among their policies and capabilities and leverage their influence against the Great Powers,” he says.

Dr Yoon paints a bleak picture and I cannot agree that the US is ready to withdraw from its East Asian commitments. If true, following Iraq and Afghanistan, it would be dangerously like the isolationist policies of the 1920s and 30s which in some measure created the climate for World War II.

That said, Dr Yoon’s advocacy of ‘middle-power cooperation’ makes a great deal of sense, if only as an insurance policy. Whether this could be achieved through an adaptation of current structures, or something entirely new would be a question for the future.     

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A brave man – or a silly one?

The Chief Executive of the ACT and Region Chamber of Commerce, Andrew Blyth, is either a brave man or a silly one for calling on the ACT Government to cut its funding to the Territory’s schools.

Especially as his pre-budget submission on the subject coincided with the annual National Report on Government Services that showed the ACT leading the country in education and training outcomes.  

The report found the ACT had a ranking of first or equal first in NAPLAN in 2012 across 16 of the 20 areas of testing. In 2013 the NAPLAN assessment showed that the ACT had improved that performance, ranking first or equal first in all 20 areas of testing.

The ACT had the highest proportion of Year 6 students (65.3 per cent) performing at or above the proficient standard in science literacy in 2012. This was 13.9 percentage points above the Australian average.

Mean NAPLAN scores of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students were higher than the national result, as were the proportions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students achieving at or above the national minimum standard.

The report also found that the ACT had the highest proportion of children enrolled in a preschool program…the success story rolled on and on.

Mr Blyth wanted to know why the ACT Government spent $18,270 a year on each government school student, 30 per cent more than NSW. Perhaps the above figures will give him his answer.

In his submission he wants to see the ACT Government’s expenditure benchmarked against other jurisdictions – many parents would see that as the start of a race to the bottom.

And, of course there is the hint of that tired old argument about the private sector being so much more wonderful than the public when he wants a “business-like discipline” to the Government’s activities.

Business is all about getting results and in education at least, the ACT’s results are apparent. Even if its results were not so good, it would be disastrous for the Government to adopt Mr Blyth’s slash-and-burn suggestions.

Education is the key to so many other areas. An educated population finds answers, whether it is to climate change, or where to build the next housing estate. An educated population is needed to push the boundaries of medical research, to find better ways of alleviating poverty, to create jobs through new industries and for much, much more.

I have travelled in countries where desperately poor people move heaven and earth to give their children an education because they see, as Mr Blyth apparently does not, that it is the only way for them to advance. I have seen villages with no electricity, a rudimentary water supply, where the nearest doctor is a day’s walk away, but where there is still a little school with a teacher imparting knowledge with a blackboard, chalk and a few ancient text books.

Congratulations to the ACT Government for showing the rest of Australia the way in quality education. It should have the thanks of every parent whose children are fortunate enough to be in its school system.

It can only be hoped that the Chamber’s view on this subject is quickly consigned to the trash can.