Sunday, November 30, 2014

Taiwan – where a vote means something

Taiwan’s Prime Minister, Jian Yi-huah resigned after his ruling Kuomintang Party (KMT) suffered a landslide defeat in the country’s local and municipal elections, saying he took “political responsibility” for the heavy losses.

The responsibility lies with the policies of the KMT itself which ordinary Taiwanese see as making the country too dependent on mainland China for its economic wellbeing. The election results reinforce the views of the people, made clear earlier this year during massive demonstrations against a planned trade pact with Beijing.

The result will give new impetus to the China-sceptic Opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) which held power from 2000-08. A DPP victory at the Presidential poll in 2016 would infuriate Beijing which sees Taiwan as a renegade province that must eventually return to the motherland.

If Taiwanese have any doubts what that might mean they have only to look across the Taiwan Straits to Hong Kong where long-running pro-democracy demonstrations are being put down with increasing police violence.

The demonstrators there are calling for the right to freely elect their leaders – something that was promised by China when it took over Hong Kong from the British in 1997 and declared it a Special Administrative Region.

After years of procrastination, Beijing said the election could take place in 2017, but only with candidates it has “approved”, something that demonstrators believe will result in a meaningless contest between pro-China stooges.

The difference between Taiwan and Hong Kong is stark. Taiwan is a vibrant democracy and the will of its electorate is paramount. The young people who took to the streets to celebrate the KMT’s downfall know that they have a stake in their country’s future – and that future does not involve taking orders from an authoritarian clique in far-off Beijing.

In contrast Hong Kong is treating its young activists (the vast majority of the pro-democracy demonstrators are under 40) with baton-charges, pepper spraying and beatings. Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying has said there is “not a chance” that Beijing will water-down its right to decide who Hong Kongers should vote for.

And in an incredible statement for the representative of a political philosophy that supposedly espouses the establishment of a classless society, Mr Leung said free elections were not possible “because they would result in the poor dominating politics”.

In a further indication that Beijing is strengthening its hold over Hong Kong, a delegation of British Members of Parliament on a fact-finding mission have been told by the Chinese Embassy in London that they would be denied entry into the Special Administrative Region.

The delegation wanted to review Hong Kong’s relations with the United Kingdom 30 years after it negotiated terms for the handover. Beijing said that would be interference in its internal affairs.

It is no wonder that young Hong Kongers are casting envious eyes at the freedoms their counterparts enjoy across the Taiwan Strait.

And no wonder that as far as the youth of Taiwan are concerned, reunion with the mainland is a dead issue.          






Monday, November 24, 2014

Democratic India’s South Pacific push

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned ‘democracy’ five times during his speech to the Australian Parliament last week.

There were also numerous references to ‘security’ and ‘cooperation’, and this key paragraph:

“We should collaborate more on maintaining maritime security. We should work together on the seas and collaborate in international forums. And, we should work for a universal respect for international law and global norms.”

Nothing could be clearer from the Indian leader’s message: India and Australia should provide the foundation for a democratic consensus that respects the rule of law and opposes those that would subvert it.

He never mentioned China, but Beijing is never far from Modi’s thoughts as he frames his nation’s new policies for the Asia-Pacific region.

It was no coincidence that Modi’s next stop after Australia was Suva for a meeting of Pacific Island leaders where he announced a basket of aid and other support.

This included a $1 million fund to help these small countries cope with rising sea levels resulting from climate change; support for tele-medicine and tele-education projects; promotion of trade links, relaxation of visa restrictions and the establishment of a regular Forum for India-Pacific Island Cooperation, with the next meeting to be held in India in 2015.

His intentions are clear. India well be a significant player in the Pacific region and a counterbalance to China’s growing influence there. His emphasis on maritime security and the need to respect international forums would certainly have been noted by countries like the Philippines and Vietnam, currently locked in disputes over China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Disputes which China resolutely refuses to take to international arbitration.

Was it any surprise that almost before Modi had left, Chinese President Xi Jinping flew into Suva to sign a flurry of Memorandums of Understanding with Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama including…wait for it…”provision of goods to address climate change” and “visa exemptions for Fijians travelling to China”.

China has courted Bainimarama since 2006 when he ousted his country’s democratically-elected Government in a military coup, a move that would have delighted Beijing which prefers to deal with authoritarian Governments rather than “inefficient” democracies.

For a while it seemed that Fiji might be the key to China’s influence in the South Pacific, but Bainimarama has chosen to return to the democratic path and this year his party won a general election which was considered to be fair.

Beijing must now tread more carefully, trading on the Fijian leader’s dislike of Australia and New Zealand, which opposed his previous dictatorship. India, however, is quite another matter.

It will be fascinating to see how this all plays out in the months and years to come.  

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Beware of Chinese bearing gifts

The China-Australia Free Trade Agreement needs to be studied line-by-line.

It needs to be tested by academics, business, community leaders and politicians. There should be a national debate, led by Parliament certainly, over not just the headlines, but the fine print. Who wins and who loses; and whether the wins more than balance out the inevitable losses.

Unfortunately Australians are not going to get that opportunity until after the agreement is signed, sealed and delivered next year. That means the much-heralded announcement this week is little more than a statement of intent with a few headlines (dot points as one academic described them) put out mainly for publicity purposes in the wake of the G20 summit.

Certainly the initial sampling is positive – in fact the headlines suggest a better deal than most had reasonably hoped for. Meat, dairy and wine producers will benefit from reduced or eliminated tariffs; iron ore, gold and coking coal will have their tariffs removed; service industries – education, tourism, health and aged care – will have new or improved access to the Chinese market.

But there are other areas that need further investigation. Why, for instance, is China insisting on having the right to bring its own people into the country to work on projects in which it is investing?

Prime Minister, Tony Abbott says this will not happen if the right kind of Australian skilled labour is available, but who decides whether this is the case or not? Chinese investment in Africa has been accompanied by thousands of its own workers, with locals relegated to the most menial of tasks – if at all.

When all these factors are considered it should be remembered that Beijing never does anything that will not overwhelmingly bring benefits to its own interests – if not immediately then down the track. It makes no concessions that can’t be turned to its advantage at some point.

China seeks to dominate this region. It promotes its own brand of government as more suitable for developing nations than “chaotic and inefficient” democracy. The counterweight to this is, of course, the United States and the US’s major ally in the area – once famously called its ‘deputy sheriff” - is Australia.

But Australia has become increasingly dependent on its economic relationship with China to maintain its prosperity. The Free Trade Agreement will significantly increase that dependence.

Money talks – and could there be a time when Australia’s desire to maintain a reasonable standard of living for its people outweighs traditional ties with nations that have shared values and love of personal freedoms?

In short, could Australia’s dependence on trade with China eventually force it into Beijing’s orbit?  

Only time will answer that question but I was concerned when I heard Tony Abbott, in his eulogy of the deal, say that he now ‘trusted’ the Chinese leadership.

Trade by all means, but trust is another matter.

Beware of Chinese bearing gifts. 



Sunday, November 16, 2014

Modi wins G20 statement on tax dodgers

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has gained an important victory at the just-finished G20 meeting in Brisbane, Australia, winning an assurance from the summit of a formula for the exchange of tax information between countries.  

Modi made the repatriation of what he described as ‘black money’ his priority for the meeting of world leaders, saying that fast developing technologies for moving capital around the world had outstripped the ability of authorities to keep track of it.

As a result, super rich enterprises and individuals were getting out of their responsibilities to pay a fair share of tax, the Indian PM said.

He especially wants action against countries which set themselves up as tax havens at a time when multinational companies are increasingly seeking them out.

The G20’s final communique gave him what he wanted — promising that moves already under way with the OECD to reform international tax rules would be completed by next year.

Modi’s comments come in the wake of reports that India’s economy is now expanding at its fastest pace in more than two years as manufacturing begins to recover from its longest slump in more than a quarter of a century.  

Modi, the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Australia in 28 years, is staying on for a two-day State visit, the highlight of which will be an address to the Parliament in Canberra tomorrow

Monday, November 10, 2014

Let their minds fly free

I have just read yet another story about a program designed to ensure students are ‘job ready’ when they leave school or university.

The term is much-loved by the Minister for Industry, Ian Macfarlane, who is constantly promoting the idea that young people must be taught in such a way that they can step seamlessly from their education years into the workforce.

Last month, for instance, Macfarlane was planning reforms of training packages to deliver “what students need to get a job and what industry needs to enhance its productivity through access to the right skills”. A week or so earlier he was delivering “the next tranche of reforms to make the skills and training system more job-focused.”

Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne delivers much the same message, announcing a $12 million plan to encourage more school students to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) “to ensure young Australians are equipped with the necessary skills for the economy of the future”.

Now, I have no intention of arguing that young Australians should receive the training that will enable them to have prosperous and happy lives; or that more students ought to be encouraged to consider the STEM subjects.

My concern is that the balance is tipping too far the other way and that subjects that do not have any obvious pathway into employment are steadily being neglected.

In a recent article, a research scholar with the Institute of Public Affairs, Stephanie Forrest, warned of the “fall of literature”.

"We now have a national curriculum for English, and from the Foundation Year to Year 10, it contains scant mention of any Western literature,” she writes.

“In general, the English curriculum — that is, a curriculum that should arguably be concerned with teaching students to read, write, speak fluent English, understand grammar, and read literature — is far more concerned that students should become ‘ethical, thoughtful, informed and active members of society’.

“The curriculum also frequently alludes to lessons relating to ‘ethics' — particularly relating to the notorious cross-curriculum priorities: ‘Sustainability', ‘Asia and Australia's Engagement with Asia', and ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures'.”

Once again, there is nothing wrong with children learning about ethics, sustainability or engagement with Asia, or in better understanding Indigenous culture, but in the past these were subjects that young people with a well-rounded education chose to pursue outside school or at tertiary level.

These are subjects which are far better ‘learned’ than force-fed in the classroom.

A nation needs scientists and researchers as well as it needs plumbers and electricians. It also needs philosophers, poets, novelists, playwrights and artists. It needs young people whose minds are attuned to range over the full gamut of thoughts and ideas and to accept or reject them as they mature into young adults.

One of Ms Forrest’s most telling comments comes when she quotes ‘a representative of a prominent teachers' organisation’, who said he could not ‘sell’ the study of classic literature to the majority of teenagers.

The trouble is, no one is even bothering to try.

By force-feeding a teacher’s view of ‘ethics’ and ‘sustainability’ rather than allowing young people to develop their own ideas on the subjects, we are pushing them into narrow corridors at a time when their minds should be expanding to embrace the full richness of knowledge that gives life meaning.


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Soothing words and provocative actions

Less than two months ago it was all handshakes and smiles. Chinese President Xi Jinping, on a state visit to India, said he was committed to resolving the border dispute between the two countries “at an early date”.

“China has the determination to work with India through friendly consultation to settle the boundary question,” he told Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Seven weeks later it is now clear that on the border question at least Xi brought nothing to New Delhi except empty words. Chinese incursions and provocations have continued, both on the borders with Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir.

China has sent troops by boat and land well across the Line of Actual Control (LOC), which serves as an unofficial border, in the Pangong Lake area of Jammu and Kashmir and has reacted angrily to Indian plans to build border posts along the LOC in Arunachal Pradesh.

In response to the latter initiative Beijing once again mouthed the usual slogans. “China’s position on the China-India boundary question is consistent and clear. We are committed to finding a solution to the boundary question with the Indian side through friendly negotiation as soon as possible and working together to safeguard peace and tranquillity along the border,” Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying said.

China’s position is anything but consistent and clear: A mixture of soothing words and provocative actions. Modi obviously has little faith in any negotiated settlement over a dispute which has dragged on since the 1962 war between the two countries and indeed goes back to an agreement signed between the British Raj and the then Government of Tibet a century ago.

In announcing the new border posts, the Indian Prime Minister also called for a considerable strengthening of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) which guards the frontier.

Indeed it is believed that a beefed-up and more aggressive ITBP faced down the latest Chinese incursions on Pangong Lake.

It is quite clear that by an overwhelming majority the inhabitants of Arunachal Pradesh regard themselves as Indian and would prefer to be sending their elected representatives to the State capital in Itanagar and the Lok Sabha in New Delhi than having to obey diktats from far-off Beijing.

A settlement there and in Jammu and Kashmir can never be reached in the face of constant flare-ups and heightened tensions.

The thinking among some Indian observers is that Beijing wants nothing more than complete annexation of the disputed territories and is simply dragging things out until it can find an Indian Government it can bully into acceding to its demands.

With the Modi Government at least, that is a forlorn hope.