Thursday, July 31, 2014

Why India stands against the WTO

Among the wailings and gnashing of teeth coming out of Geneva at India’s refusal to ratify a trade agreement to improve customs procedures, is very little analysis, let along sympathy, for the country’s position.

We have heard a great deal about the fact that ratification of the so-called Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) would save World Trade Organisation (WTO) members $1 trillion over time (quite what time and to whom the greater benefits will flow is never made clear) and threats to shut India out of any future agreement.

The fact that India does buy grain at inflated prices from its farmers in order to stockpile it and provide it at reduced cost to poor families, is either passed over or treated as some form of unnecessary bureaucratic stumbling block to free trade.

The fact also that New Delhi has been trying for years to gain some form of exemption from WTO subsidy rules in order to continue this very necessary and wholly internal practice, also seems to have been forgotten.

It came to a head when the new Indian Government set out an ultimatum: Provide an exemption from our internal subsidy practice or we want nothing to do with the TFA.

This brought a chorus of disapproval from the Western-dominated WTO. United States Ambassador to the body, Michael Froman described India’s stance as “deeply disappointing”. Australia’s Minister for Trade, Andrew Robb, called it “a great blow to confidence in the WTO”.

The rich Western nations, that can easily feed their own populations and seek to sell their surpluses abroad, regard free trade as a sacred script – and indeed there are tremendous advantages.

But there also have to be exceptions to the rule.

India has one third of the world’s extreme poor living within its boundaries. Minister for Minority Affairs, Najma Heptulla has described it as the biggest challenge facing the nation over the next decade. “We are not proud of it and we will surmount it,” she said.

To do this it is absolutely necessary to support the nation’s farmers, many of whom are bordering on the extreme poor, in order to keep them producing the food essential for the day-to-day survival of millions.

Freer trade is a laudable objective, but India should not allow itself to be drawn into a system that would penalise it for providing sufficient food for the survival of its people.

There may well be a trillion dollars and millions of jobs resulting from a TFA down the track, but the extreme poor of India cannot wait for this golden age.

They need food for themselves and their children today, and tomorrow, and the day after.



Monday, July 28, 2014

‘Indian persecution’ fears a myth

While, in common with many Australians, I have been appalled at the Government’s desperate attempts to keep 157 asylum-seekers out of the country by detaining them on the high seas, I find myself in agreement with the Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, when he says Indian citizens on board the boat are most likely economic migrants.

To qualify as refugees there has to be a genuine fear of persecution in the country from which they are fleeing. So what is the nature of the persecution taking place in India today that forced these Indians onto boats to make the perilous sea voyage to Australia?

I have lived and worked in India, most recently to cover the elections there. The poll did not pass off without incident – the worst being deadly attacks on Muslims by tribal separatists in Assam State – a remote area in the north-east where things sometimes get out of hand.

Elsewhere there were brawls between opposing groups of supporters, name-calling and angry threats occurred at the highest level, but in the major cities there were more deaths from heart attacks in the extreme heat than there were from any systematic inter-racial or inter-religious violence or persecution.

This is not to say that India does not have problems. There were times in the recent past when claiming refugee status might have been acceptable: After the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat or in the massacres of Sikhs that followed the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984.

In addition, one third of the world’s extreme poor live in the country and its death rate for under-fives is the highest in the world. The nation is grappling with these continuing problems and initiatives to at least begin the task of addressing them are a high priority of the newly-elected Government led by Narendra Modi.

This work is not helped when India’s image is tarnished by attention-seekers such as refugee lawyer David Manne and Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young who are quite happy to imply that India is a country that persecutes its citizens in order to further their respective agendas.

I have no definite knowledge of the circumstances that led to the refugee boat putting to sea from the coastal city of Pondicherry in the Indian State of Tamil Nadu last month. However, it appears the vast majority of those on board are ethnic Tamils. Some are Indian citizens; others appeared to have fled to India from Sri Lanka, where they would have had well-founded fears of persecution under the Rajapaksa regime.

It seems quite likely that when the people smugglers negotiated a deal to take the Sri Lankan Tamils to Australia, a few members of the local community saw an opportunity to try their luck by going along for the ride, hence Morrison’s probably well-founded suspicions of economic migration.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

BRICS building an IMF alternative

Amid the plethora of international groupings that have sprung up in the decades since World War II we are just getting used to another one. BRICS stands for the names of its members – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – and we are destined to hear a lot more about it in the years to come.

It is relatively new, formed out of a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Brazil, Russia, India and China in 2006. South Africa joined in 2010.

 It is unusual in that it is not based on geography, shared language, customs or history. It is not a trading block, although that might materialise. Members are bound together by a shared belief that they are the emerging regional powers of the future, linked with mistrust of existing international institutions dominated by developed Western nations and especially the United States.

At its most recent meeting in Fortaleza, Brazil earlier this month, the group decided to set up a BRICS Development Bank with $100 billion in funding and a reserve currency pool of another $100 billion – a direct challenge to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which members believe are creatures of the US and the European Union and in urgent need of reform.

The meeting also marked the first foray of India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, into multilateral politics. He made it clear that India did not want to see the Development Bank dominated by one country in the same way as the US plays a major role in the existing institutions.

He lobbied hard for the bank to have its headquarters in New Delhi, but in the end had to accept a compromise. The bank will be set up in Shanghai, but an Indian will head it for the first six years of its existence followed by Brazil, Russia and South Africa taking terms of five years each.  

However, that arrangement has not allayed the fears of economists and other commentators in India that the organisation will quickly be dominated by Beijing.

Rajiv Kumar, of the Centre for Policy Research, says the Bank’s staff will be largely Chinese and that Beijing will effectively be pulling the levers of power, making sure loans go only to countries it favours. Sanjaya Baru, of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, said the fact that the first president will be Indian was nothing more than a “lollipop” offered by Beijing to mute critics of its dominance.

It will also probably be a case of “he who pays the piper”. Of the Bank’s $100 billion in funding, China is providing $41 billion, Russia, Brazil and India $18 billion each and South Africa just $5 billion.

Critics are also concerned that the Bank’s reserves are not great enough to do much good.  The Indian Government is launching an ambitious infrastructure program which by some estimates will require funding of $1 trillion over five years - meaning it will still have to go to the Western institutions for most of its funding.

But that may well be part of Modi’s thinking – building stronger bridges with China as a basis for resolving the two counties’ border issues, at  the same time seeking assistance from Washington in return for the closer relationship President Barak Obama desires in order to provide a democratic ‘balance’ to China in the region.

It’s a difficult and possibly dangerous game – but one the new Indian PM is not shirking from playing.  




Sunday, July 20, 2014

Travel is wonderful – but not for everyone

American magazine editor and writer Kevin Kelly suggested in a recent blog that travel is such an important mind-broadening experience for young people that governments should subsidise it.

Kelly believes that everyone ought to do national service – although not necessarily of the military kind. “A two-year stint of service is the way to mix the layers of society up, gain the energies of youth for all, and have them begin to repay the 18 years invested in them,” he writes.

Even better if that service is conducted overseas, Kelly says, The amount of money such a program would cost would be repaid a hundred-fold in increased global business skills, decreased war bills because it’s harder to demonise those you’ve lived with, and increases in tourism as young people with a taste for travel want to do more in later years.

It’s a beguiling prospect without a hope of success. The fact is that there are many opportunities for young people to spread their wings – the Peace Corps in the United States, Australia has Australian Volunteers International. No nation is going spend money in forcing youth into these projects which would probably be overwhelmed if they did.

While many would benefit from the opportunity, others could easily end up doing more harm than good. Kelly should be aware there are US politicians who proudly proclaim the fact they have never owned a passport – and get elected on the fact. Closed minds will not necessarily be opened and those with engrained prejudices will inevitably find the experiences that reinforce them.

Having said that, I applaud any initiatives that entice young people to step outside their comfort zones. The Australian Defence Force’s Gap Year Program is an outstanding example. Other opportunities, such as reciprocal work visas for people under a certain age, are in place for some countries and should be expanded.

One thought that has occurred is giving Australian graduates the opportunity to work off some of their Higher Education Contributions Scheme debts through taking part in a form of national service, perhaps overseas.

It is a great world. I have been blessed with a job that has taken me to many parts of it; with every new country I visit the thirst to see more is increased. One day I will have to stop, or at least slow down, but not yet, not yet.

Even so, I realise this is not for everyone. The stay-at-homes – and those who are content with a trip to Bali or Mexico every couple of years – can still be valuable members of their home communities.

So let’s have more and varied ways of encouraging young people to travel – without compulsion. 




Thursday, July 17, 2014

Something very odd about Afghan poll

Allegations of fraud and ballot-rigging are all too common – almost ritual – after elections in many countries, and there is little doubt something very fishy did occur in Afghanistan’s presidential run-off poll between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani on June 14.

This second round of the election was needed because no candidate received 50 per cent of the votes cast in the initial poll. That wasn’t surprising as there were eight candidates. However, Abdullah, with 45 per cent of the vote, looked to have a distinct advantage over Ghani, who finished on 31 per cent.

Yet when the preliminary results of the second round were announced, Ghani had raced to 56 per cent and Abdullah had actually lost a percentage point on 44 per cent.

To achieve this Ghani would have had to pick up every single vote from the six candidates who were excluded in addition to getting a few from people who voted for Abdullah first time round.

I suppose it’s not impossible, but highly unlikely – and it certainly adds some credence to Abdullah’s angry accusations of fraud and ballot-rigging.

Fortunately, United States Secretary of State John Kerry has been able to broker a deal whereby the country’s Election Commission will gather the ballot papers in one place and begin an audit. That process is now under way.

It didn’t come a moment too soon as Afghans, newcomers to democracy, were in danger of splitting along old tribal enmities – Abdullah has the support of the Tajiks in the north of the country, while Ghani’s powerbase is among the southern Pashtuns.

Kerry’s initiative appears to be working as the candidates have agreed to abide by the outcome of the recount and there are talks of them cooperating in a Government of National Unity.  

Winston Churchill once said that democracy is a poor form of Government. In my reporting career I can remember the time when atrocious gerrymandering of electoral boundaries denied Northern Ireland’s Catholics, a third of the population, a single seat in the British Parliament; when the slogan “vote early, vote often”, was taken very seriously.

But those problems were fixed – and there is no reason why they cannot be fixed in Afghanistan. Both candidates are cultured, highly-capable men who would be horrified at the thought that their country could slip once again into bloody chaos. They know – and most Afghans know – that the Taliban would be licking their lips at the prospect.

They only have to remember the second part of Churchill’s remark: “…but all the others are so much worse.”



Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Hong Kong’s unofficial vote for democracy

Almost 800,000 people – about one in five of the voting population – have taken part in Hong Kong’s ‘democracy referendum’, held over 10 days last month.

The vote was unofficial, organised by the pro-democracy group, Occupy Central, with the aim of demonstrating that citizens of the Special Administrative Region (SAR) support universal suffrage - and to pressure Beijing into allowing a realistic way of choosing the Hong Kong Chief Executive in reforms, planned for 2017.

When the former British colony was handed back to China on June 30, 1997 Beijing promised that its citizens would eventually receive universal suffrage under its ‘One Country, Two Systems’ model. The original date for its introduction, 2012, was set aside, many activists believing China hoped that Hong Kong’s democracy movement would lose heart and fade away.

This clearly hasn’t happened, and although 2017 is still on schedule for full universal suffrage, Beijing has ruled that candidates must come from a list selected by a nominating committee, possibly allowing it to screen out anyone it disapproves of.

The referendum asked Hong Kongers to select a system for electing a Chief Executive, currently appointed by a small group of pro-Beijing establishment figures. The winner, with around 42 per cent of the vote, allows candidates to be nominated either by 35,000 registered voters or by any political party which gained at least five per cent of the vote in the previous election for the Legislative Council.

Such a plan would inevitably lead to multi-party democracy, something that is anathema to Beijing where continuation of the Communist one-party system is put on an equal footing with protection of the nation as a whole.

In the past Hong Kongers have taken to the streets in their hundreds of thousands to protest against any perceived backsliding on the road to democracy. Until now the campaign has been provocative – Hong Kong flags from its colonial era were waved at demonstrations a year ago – but generally peaceful.

Fears are that an outright rejection of this proposal will lead to a campaign of civil disobedience which could turn violent, giving Beijing the excuse to launch a crackdown and creating yet another flashpoint in a region which already has a surfeit of them




Friday, July 4, 2014

Another round in China’s border games

Once again Beijing is playing games over border issues with India by producing a new map which shows the north-eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as part of China under the title ‘Southern Tibet’.

There is nothing new in this. These maps have been produced before as I have mentioned in several previous blogs. On this occasion it appears the new edition has been produced to also underline China’s claims over the disputed islands in the South China Sea.

However, it is no coincidence that the map was published during the visit of an Indian trade delegation to Beijing led by Vice-President Hamid Ansari – a delegation which heard from China’s President, Xi Jinping that his country would never bully other nations, no matter how powerful it became.

Of course this placed the delegation in an invidious position – should there be a protest, or should it simply carry on with the mission? In the end Ansari was reported to have made a private protest while conducting business as usual.

There were, of course, vocal reactions elsewhere. A Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson in New Delhi described Arunachal Pradesh as an “inalienable part of India”, while the state’s Chief Minister, Nabam Tuki said he objected to and condemned the claim.

No comment has been forthcoming from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, something which was seized upon by the Opposition Congress Party with spokesman Shakeel Ahmad accusing him of timidity.

However, Modi’s silence may be an even stronger rebuke than a protest, which could be interpreted that India acknowledged there was a dispute that needed to be answered. By saying nothing, he is dismissing the tactic with the contempt it deserves.

The fact is that successive Indian Governments have maintained that however many maps China wishes to produce, the status of Arunachal Pradesh is non-negotiable. It is part of India. End of story.

In May, the people of the state participated in the Indian general election – the biggest exercise in democracy on earth – and sent their representatives to the Lok Sabha (Parliament) in New Delhi. There were no signs in that poll that they wished to swop their right to do this for the centralised, authoritarian system practiced by Beijing.

In the end the map was probably more for home consumption than meant to be taken seriously in the wider world. New Delhi will ignore it while leaving its neighbour in no doubt of the price it would pay should it try to pursue its expansionist ambitions by other means.