Sunday, June 29, 2014

Waving the flag for a free Asia

At a recent launch for Stuart Harris’ book, China’s Foreign Policy, former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke took current PM, Tony Abbott, to task for stating that Japan was the country’s “best friend in Asia”.

Comments like that, Hawke claimed, revealed Abbott’s “lack of depth in understanding of foreign policy issues”.

Hawke, a long-time Sinophile, can be excused for what he saw as a slight to China, which has long since overtaken Japan as Australia’s major trading partner, but when respected academic Hugh White says the Government should “push the pause button” on an alliance with Tokyo it is time to start taking the matter more seriously.

White, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, believes that Canberra’s strategic interests are quite different from Japan’s and that an alliance could see Australia drawn into the confrontation between Tokyo and Beijing over the Senkaku Islands “which carries a modest but very real risk of an armed clash which could quickly escalate into war”.

“So the question for us is, if we were Japan’s ally, would we go to war with China to support them over the Senkakus?” White asks.

Quite clearly there would be no stomach for such a conflict among Australians, but it might well be that by tying itself closer to Japan and taking a firmer stand on similar disputes in the South China Sea, Australia will be playing its part in ensuring that such situation does not arise.

Hawke was right when he said during the book launch that China wants a peaceful and stable region in which to pursue its economic interests. However there is a strengthening nationalistic streak in Beijing’s politics that seeks to impose its will on its near neighbours in any way short of all-out warfare.

If they can achieve their current objectives in this way, the nationalists in Beijing may be tempted to push the envelope further, making life very uncomfortable in the region, raising tensions and increasing the risk of an accidental plunge into all-out conflict.

New Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi see nothing wrong with a closer strategic partnership with Japan, calling it “a high priority” for his country which he hopes to seal in a visit there later this year.

Speaking to a visiting Japanese Parliamentary delegation, Modi said India and Japan shared a “fundamental identity of values, interests and policies”. The row over whaling aside, the same could be said for Australia and Japan.

China’s President, Xi Jinping, is on record as saying his country would never impose its will on other nations, no matter how powerful it becomes.

Maybe, but putting subtle and consistent pressure on smaller nations until they voluntarily bend to its will is another matter. What is needed now is a firm and united response to those pressures.

There is nothing wrong in waving the flag for democracy, freedom of speech and support for human rights in the Asian region – even if it is in the face of the authoritarian leadership in Beijing.      





Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Modi’s mission: strengthen the Chicken’s Neck

The decision of new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to make his first overseas visit to the Kingdom of Bhutan has come as a shock to other countries in the region.

Bhutan, a tiny landlocked nation of around 740,000 people tucked in at the eastern end of the Himalayas, at first sight seems a strange choice of destination, rather as if a new Australian PM had chosen Kiribati or Tuvalu for a first visit.

Look a little closer and there are good reasons Modi made Thimphu the first capital to pay his respects as Indian leader. The country shares a border with both India and China and it is Beijing which has been making the diplomatic headway there in recent times.

While India has been preoccupied with internal problems, China has stolen several diplomatic marches on the country’s doorstep, establishing its presence in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Only this year it overtook India as the biggest foreign investor in Nepal.

While Bhutan has so far resisted Beijing’s attempts to cosy up – the countries have a disputed border with no resolution in sight – its normally close relations with New Delhi received a setback when the previous Government suspended the supply of subsidised kerosene and liquid petroleum gas to the kingdom.

Modi’s aim was to get relations back on track. He promised to speed work on three hydro-electric projects, which will benefit both countries, double the number of scholarships for Bhutanese students in India and create an e-library containing more than two million books and periodicals.

All this is aimed at strengthening Indo-Bhutan ties and fortifying Thimphu’s resolve when its border talks resume with China next month. The nightmare scenario for New Delhi would be Bhutan being bullied into concessions, especially on its western borders, which would put more pressure on the Siliguri Corridor, or Chicken’s Neck, a narrow sliver of territory that is the only connection with India’s seven north-eastern states, one of which, Arunachal Pradesh, is claimed by Beijing as ‘Southern Tibet’.  

If mending fences was the Indian Prime Minister’s principle aim, his visit appears to have been an unqualified success. At a state banquet, Bhutan’s Prime Minister, Lyonchen Tshering Tobgay, praised his counterpart and called for India to be given a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

China’s reaction to the visit was muted with the state-run Xinhua news agency quoting Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying as saying China was glad to see its neighbours developing friendly relations with each other.

However, it is clear that China’s diplomatic offensive in South Asia has received a small but significant setback.  


Friday, June 13, 2014

Full time never called on these little wars

The attention of the world’s leaders is suddenly focused back on Iraq where the new kid on the block, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant army are closing in on Bagdad and about to put a new twist on President George W. Bush’s famous line about missions being accomplished.

Meanwhile, for a good number of the planet’s citizenry who are not paid to worry about such matters, the World Cup of football will be the only show in town for the next month.

Around the world, the perpetrators of nasty little wars and massacres are not taking time off to watch the games, their actions slipping further below the radar to be monitored only by a few over-stretched and increasingly threatened non-government organisations.

One such drama is continuing its record run in the Central African Republic, a country which has known peace only sporadically since independence from France in 1960, a playground for dictators, armed thugs and casual rapists; perhaps the world capital of misery.

Many people haven’t even heard of the Central African Republic or CAR, fewer could point to it on the map. As the name suggests it is a land-locked nation situated in the heart of what used to be called the Dark Continent and may well earn that name again, for very different reasons.   

There was what might reasonably be described as a free and fair election once – back in 1957 before the French left, but within two years of independence the wearying cycle of coups and counter coups, all with their accompanying round of killings and mutilations, began.

Colonel Jean-Bedel Bokassa mounted a coup in 1965, declared himself President for Life, and not satisfied with that announced he was the Emperor Bokassa I of the Central African Empire, crowning himself at a lavish ceremony and creating a court that would have done Napoleon (one of his heroes) proud. France had had enough and intervened to remove him, and the cycle of coups and military mutinies began all over again.

Since 2004 a war has been raging between various factions; the government has changed hands several times and despite regular attempts to broker ceasefires, pleas from United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the presence of 8000 African Union and French troops, the fighting continues to this day.

The Government in Bangui, currently led by Catherine Samba-Panza, seems powerless. Its only move in recent weeks has been to ban the sending of text messages in the lead-up to a general strike in protest at her inaction. An estimated 70 per cent of the roughly five million population have been displaced by the decade of violence, now mostly between Christian and Muslim militias who plunder, rape and murder at will.

Amnesty International has highlighted just one instance - a Muslim woman handing her seven-month old baby to a fellow Christian passenger as the bus she was travelling in was stopped at a Christian militia roadblock.

The Christian woman pretended the baby was hers while the mother and her other children were taken off the bus, robbed, stripped and eventually hacked to death with machetes.

It is natural for us in the West to put our trust in governments to fix things and if they do not it is through their own incompetence or inaction and we can get rid of them at the next polling day. In large parts of the world we are increasingly seeing this is not the case.

It is a worrying development, but sadly one that is not getting the attention it needs, especially when the world is fixated on the series of football matches in Brazil.  





Wednesday, June 11, 2014

No deals over Arunachal Pradesh

India’s newly-elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has accepted an invitation from President Xi Jinping to visit China. He also wants the Chinese leader to visit India this year.

The invitation was carried to New Delhi by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi who was effusive in his praise of his host.

“Under your leadership, India will achieve greater development and progress; India and China are partners in long-term strategic cooperation,” Wang said.

He went further, offering Modi Chinese aid in the areas of infrastructure and manufacturing – key development planks for the new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Government.

But on one point Wang was adamant – there would be no change in the ‘stapled visa’ system that China operates when travellers based in the Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh and the Indian sector of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir seek to visit China.

He even went as far to say that in the case of Arunachal Pradesh it was done as a “goodwill gesture” to facilitate travel for people from that area.

The implication is clear. China still claims virtually the whole of the state as ‘Southern Tibet’. Stapling instead of stamping visas into Indian passport holders from the area suggests that Indian sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh is a temporary situation which can only be resolved when it is returned to its rightful owners.

China’s case, as with its territorial claims in the South China Sea, rests on its version of history. A century ago, the borders were negotiated in a tripartite meeting between representatives of China, Tibet and the British Raj under the Simla Accord. Tibet agreed to Arunachal Pradesh becoming part of India but China, which saw Tibet as part of its territory even though at that time the country was de facto independent, objected and walked out of the talks.

China’s claim over Tibet became reality when it invaded in 1951. It tried to do the same in Arunachal Pradesh 11 years later in a short border war with India, taking advantage of the preoccupation of the United States and the Soviet Union with the Cuban missile crisis, but was forced to withdraw when both superpowers, having resolved their differences, put pressure on Beijing to return to the previous borders.

There the matter has rested.

However, Wang’s remarks show that China’s appetite for more territory at the expense of India is far from satisfied. The soothing words and offer of economic cooperation are Beijing’s tried and tested methods of softening up opponents in order to get what it wants.

I suspect Modi is far too astute to fall for the honey trap. He is certainly right to seek closer ties and to get what he can from his giant neighbour to support his ambitious domestic program, but should leave the Chinese leadership in no doubt that he regards Arunachal Pradesh as India’s sovereign territory – end of story.

That will probably mean the current border dispute will drag on – China can’t be forced to negotiate sensibly – but if that is the price that has to be paid, then so be it.       



Monday, June 9, 2014

Open season for conmen, crooks and crackpots

I was saddened to read of a proposal by an organisation calling itself the Reward MH370 Campaign to raise $5 million in the hope that a ‘whistleblower’ will be tempted to come forward with some hitherto undisclosed information about the fate of the missing Malaysian airliner.

The campaign, which involves several, but by no means all the families who have lost loved ones on the flight, pre-supposes there is a conspiracy by someone – perhaps the Malaysian Government, the Chinese Government, the authorities conducting the search, or maybe some shadowy terrorist organisation – to withhold information on what actually happened.

Sarah Bajc, the girlfriend of one of the passengers, supports the campaign because she says the traditional search has turned up nothing “either because of a faulty approach or due to intentional misdirection by one or more individuals”.

It is neither. The reason nothing has yet been found is because the Indian Ocean is a very big and remote place which has tested the limits of even 21st century technology and ingenuity to conduct a successful search. 

At the root of this campaign is the desperate hope some still carry that the passengers and crew did not crash, are still alive but are being prevented from revealing their whereabouts. That is why Reward MH370 is seeking to revive the long discredited northern arc of possible flight which might have taken the plane to a secret landfall.

The terrible thing about this misguided approach is that the organisers of the campaign will receive plenty of claimants to their $5 million – from conmen, crooks and crackpots – and that they will waste their money, time and emotional energies sorting through the mass of conspiracy  theories, abduction by aliens, black holes etc etc.

For many years now we have been conditioned to thinking of Planet Earth as tamed; fully explored and exploited to the needs of mankind; a fragile structure we must strive to preserve and protect from our own excesses.

In part this is true, but MH370 has shown there are still vast, wild areas about which we know very little and the floor of the southern Indian Ocean is one of these; so remote, so inhospitable that we have left it alone – until now.

I remain convinced the resting place of the Malaysian airliner will eventually be found. Whether its discovery will shed any light on what happened onboard during that fateful night of March 8 is another matter altogether.   




Saturday, June 7, 2014

Afghan election can bring hope

The attack on the convoy carrying Afghan Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah has quickly been labelled by observers as yet another example of the hopeless situation in the war-torn country; of the impossibility of holding a viable election which Taliban insurgents have promised to disrupt and destroy; of the futility of the continued involvement of the United States and its allies there.

Another opportunity for journalists to trot out that tired old phrase “the unwinnable war”.

However, the election will take place on Saturday and it will be between two eminently qualified candidates. Abdullah is a former medical specialist, the urbane, measured spokesman for the Northern Alliance in its darkest days and close friend of Alliance leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, the ‘Lion of Panjshir’, assassinated in 2001 just hours before the planes flew into the Twin Towers.   

While initially serving as Foreign Minister in the Hamid Karzai Government, Abdullah became disenchanted at the extent of corruption and resigned to fight the 2009 election against Karzai, finishing second with more than 30 per cent of the vote. In the first round of voting this time he was well ahead of other candidates but short of the 50 per cent needed, so is facing a run-off against second-placed Ashraf Ghani.

Ghani, who finished fourth in the 2009 poll, is a former World Bank economist. He has been active at the United Nations and after returning to Afghanistan in 2002 was the country’s first post-Taliban Finance Minister.

The point being that either candidate is quite capable of taking the country to its next phase in which Afghans increasingly take full charge of security while its institutions and infrastructure is gradually repaired.

Of course this cannot be done without continuing international assistance and both candidates have promised to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the US which Karzai, for reasons best known to himself, has refused to accept.

Abdullah does not mince words when he says the Taliban leadership “is not fighting to be accommodated, it is fighting to bring down the state”.  He stresses continuing military strength while remaining hopeful that a door can be opened for more moderate elements to join a peace process.  

Ghani is highlighting a program of national reconstruction, providing education and employment opportunities for young people that will gradually whittle away the Taliban’s support base.

The continuing conflict in Afghanistan will never see the signing of a surrender document or a victory parade through Kabul. In that sense commentators are right when they refer to an ‘unwinnable war’, but they are talking about a type of warfare that belongs to history.

What this war does have in common with wars of the past is that it will end. It well end when the vast majority of people on both sides see there is no point in continuing; when a compromise can be reached that is acceptable to the  middle ground.

So much rubbish has been spoken about the Afghans as being a people apart – a nation of warriors in love with perpetual warfare who, if there is no invader to fight, will turn on themselves.

Most Afghans want nothing more than people want everywhere – to get on with their lives, to raise children, to see their families prosper. The coming election will be a small step towards those goals; a defiance of fanaticism and an expression of confidence that although the going will be hard, peace will eventually come.



Monday, June 2, 2014

Urgent action needed to end rape plague

The rape and murder of two village girls in Uttar Pradesh has overshadowed the first full working week of the new Indian Government as it gets down to business.

While the incident is primarily a State Government affair, it has wide implications in a country where a rape is reported every 22 minutes.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, in an apparent admission of his own police force’s inability to handle the case, has asked the Central Bureau of Investigation to conduct a probe, a move that followed the families of the girls saying they had no faith in the impartiality of the local police.

One father is even claiming that the local Badaun District Police initially refused to investigate “because we were of low caste”.

New Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, himself of humble origins, has promised to confront the rape epidemic and engender greater respect for women. His first act after winning last month’s General Election was to kiss the feet and seek the blessing of his 95-year-old mother.

However, it will need more than symbolism to change attitudes, especially in the more remote villages where men see low-caste young women and girls as legitimate targets for their sexual pleasure.

The problem has its roots in decades of rural neglect. Badaun District villages have electricity for only nine hours each day and there is no sewerage system. The girls were raped and strangled after they had gone out into nearby fields at night to relieve themselves as there were no toilet facilities in the village – a situation that UNICEF estimates affects almost 50 per cent of the nation’s population.

During the election campaign, Modi advocated the building of communal toilet blocks within villages, where they could be monitored. Again, this is a State rather than Central Government responsibility.

And what are we to make of attitudes such as that portrayed by Chief Minister Yadav who, when questioned by a female reporter about the rapes replied: “You haven’t been harmed have you? No? Great. Thank you?”  

Modi has told his new Ministry to outline priorities for the first 100 days in their portfolios. At the top is reducing inflation, followed by initiatives in education, health, water, energy and roads.

Also included must be measures that at least start to address the prevalence of rape – a social evil that is besmirching the name of India in the international community.