Thursday, August 28, 2014

Palmer’s ignorance – China’s arrogance

The recent outburst of Palmer United Party leader Clive Palmer against China was boorish, disgraceful and deserving of censure. The mining magnate had no right to use his position as a Member of the Australian Parliament to launch an attack on another nation, simply because he is having business difficulties with a company based there.

Having said that, the response of China’s Ambassador to Australia, Ma Zhaouxu also deserves some examination. In more or less refusing to accept Mr Palmer’s belated apology, Mr Ma stated: “the Chinese people are never to be insulted”.

What he really means by this is that the Chinese people are never to be criticised, never to have their actions questioned. The Chinese people – or at least the single party that comprises their Government – are always right. Those that dare to question their actions always wrong or, in the special jargon that official Chinese statements use “mistaken”.

We have increasingly seen this demonstrated in Beijing’s bullying treatment of those small South East Asian nations which dared to resist its claim to virtually all the South China Sea as its sovereign territory.

Its arrogance is highlighted in its refusal to test its case before the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea because as far as it is concerned there is no case. It is right and everyone else has to live with that.

And when the Philippines refused to buckle to Beijing’s will it was punished with an initially meagre humanitarian response to Typhoon Haiyan’s devastation of that country – a response that was upgraded in the light of a storm of unfavourable publicity.

Add to that, its persistent publishing of maps showing large swathes of Indian territory as part of Chinese Tibet and its row with Japan over islands in the East China Sea, and it is easy to see why Beijing is regarded with fear and mistrust by many people in its region.

And to go off at somewhat of a tangent, what about the boorish, ignorant attitude of the Chinese football supporters in the Asian Cup game between Guangzhou Evergrande and Western Sydney Wanderers this week?

The Australian team members were subject to late night abusive phone calls and banging on their hotel doors on the eve of the match, a car deliberately swerved into the team bus, causing an accident of the way to the stadium and during the game bottles were thrown and lasers flashed into the eyes of the players.

None of this was reported in the local media and complaints to the Chinese club have been ignored.    

As I said at the beginning, Clive Palmer was wrong to use gutter language in what is essentially a corporate dispute. He is now trying to mend fences.  

If China really wishes to be a force for good in its neighbourhood – if it really wants to be a partner, rather than a master in the region - then it could begin by accepting there might be value in points of view other than its own.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

What price 44 Indian labourers?

Many years ago in the United Kingdom a veteran news editor explained to me his rule for judging the weight he gave to stories on any given day.

A pedestrian run over in the High Street outside the office equalled 10 people killed in a gas explosion in another UK town.

That equalled 100 miners dead in a disaster in Germany and 1000 killed in an earthquake in China.

“Of course, if there was anyone from here killed in the Chinese earthquake we would give it much greater prominence,” he added.
I thought of this advice after reading an article by Indian journalist Shishir Gupta who is trying to remind the world that there are still 44 Indian labourers missing in northern Iraq since the Islamic State took over the territory more than two months ago.

Since then the Government in New Delhi has been making persistent but as yet futile efforts to discover their fate. Families have agonised first with reports that the labourers were all dead, then by apparent sightings of two of them.
Gupta has been told by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs that the reported sightings of two of the labourers in Mosul were difficult to confirm because the grainy picture showed them with beards.

This could be an indication that the mostly Hindu workforce had converted to Islam in order to avoid execution.

The Ministry official said further intelligence suggested the men were alive and being held in a cement factory on the outskirts of Mosul.
“In the absence of any bodies or pictures of executions, we will consider the men to be alive and will continue to seek their extradition,” the official said.

The world heard briefly of the Indians in the first hectic days of the Islamic State’s advance. Since then the horrifying pictures, first of a seven-year-old Australian boy holding up the severed head of a Syrian soldier, then the beheading of American journalist James Foley, have dominated news from the area.
The boy and his family are out of reach; Foley is dead. There is still some hope that 44 men, who went to work in Iraq to better themselves and their families, are still alive and can be saved.

While the American, British and Australian Governments are right to be outraged by the events of the past weeks, it is to be hoped they are not overlooking the plight of the labourers simply because they come from a country far away.  



Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Indian PM heads biggest clean-up on earth

The Indian Government has embarked on one of the most ambitious environmental projects on earth with the announcement of a single high-powered ‘super task force’ charged with cleaning up the 2500-kilometre River Ganga.

The new body — which as yet has no name — will take over from the National Ganga River Basin Authority and various other responsible entities spread across a number of Ministries.

This diffused approach has been criticised in the past for wasting millions of dollars on clean-up initiatives with little or no effect.

While the Ganga is sacred to Hindus, who believe bathing in its waters will cleanse their sins, entering the river amid mounds of garbage, industrial waste and untreated sewage has become a health hazard along much of its course.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced he will personally take charge of the new clean-up effort, an indication of the importance his newly-elected Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Government places on the task.

In announcing the latest proposals, Modi says the private sector will play a significant role and has not ruled out engaging overseas expertise. This has already been seized upon by Germany, with Deputy Consul General Michael Ott saying his country’s experience in cleaning Europe’s longest river, the 1232-kilometre Rhine, could be invaluable to the Ganga project.

Hundreds of new sewage treatment plants will be required, industries which discharge into the river will be required to clean up their acts, while a number that dump waste illegally may be closed down altogether.

There are religious sensitivities. Apart from ritual bathing, Hindu funeral rites normally involve cremation with the ashes often deposited in the sacred river. Modi, whose parliamentary constituency is Varanasi, the holiest city on the banks of the Ganga, has said he wants senior Hindu leaders involved in the project from the outset.

An indication of the problem on the Ganga and other Indian rivers can be seen at this video link:

No one is underestimating the enormity of the task and talk about it getting done in the BJP’s first term, which ends in 2019, is now being downplayed.

But by tackling head-on what will probably be the most difficult task on the BJP agenda in the first few months of the Government’s term, Modi is setting the pace for what he sees as five years of urgently-needed reform if the nation of 1.2 billion people is to reach its full potential.



Encouragement for small business and access to credit for the entrepreneurial poor were also in the speech. It is setting poor people upto fail by giving them access to credit, so they then exceed their limits and get bankrupted!


Monday, August 18, 2014

Current measures will not defeat Islamic State

United States Secretary of State John Kerry and British Prime Minister David Cameron may live to regret their decision to rule out ‘boots on the ground’ in Iraq to counter the threat of Islam State militants.

Of course their statements were principally for home consumption — for electorates tired of adventures in the Gulf who would rather try and forget the existence of Iraq and Syria. In Australia the emphasis has been placed on dealing with Australian militants returning from the battle zone, something that will probably not happen now they have been identified so clearly.

Instead the West is relying on a three-fold strategy — a political solution engineered by the Government in Baghdad; arming Kurdish forces who are in the front line against the Islamic State, and strikes against Islamic State forces from US aircraft stationed on carriers in the Gulf.

This is an approach based on hope rather than any real prospect of success. The Iraqi Government has been hopelessly deadlocked for months and it remains to be seen whether the nomination of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will improve the situation.

In any case Baghdad appears to be intent on protecting the Iraqi capital and the Shiite heartland in the south of the country rather than making any advances, either political or military, against the Islamic State.

It is extremely doubtful whether the Kurds, armed by the West or not, can make serious inroads into the territory captured by the Islamic State. In Syria it has withstood the all-out assaults on ground and in the air by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and is reportedly still on the offensive.

Most military experts agree that a war cannot be won solely from the air. Continued bombing and strafing of Islamic State positions may hold up its advance but the best that can be hoped for is a stalemate which could go on for months.

The militants have only to wait out the US air campaign and resume operations when it ends – as end it will eventually.   

Without combat troops to finally clear the ground of the militants, the Islamic State is likely to be a permanent feature in growing Middle East turmoil.

In ruling out a ground offensive Mr Cameron said keeping people in the United Kingdom safe was his top priority.

One wonders just how safe Britons, Americans, or Australians will be if an organisation dedicated to the destruction of anyone who does not accept its ‘values’ take root in large areas of Syria and Iraq.   



Monday, August 11, 2014

Not a time to cave in on sanctions

Russia’s outrageous behaviour on the borders (and probably inside the borders) of Ukraine, has quite rightly earned world condemnation. The shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was almost certainly with a Russian-supplied missile and may well have been performed by people both armed and trained by Russian agents provocateur working within the east of the country.

Just as it was inevitable that sanctions would be applied by Europe, the United States Australia and others, so was it that Russian President Vladimir Putin would hit back with counter-sanctions. What is truly disappointing is the wailing that has gone up from some sections of the Australian community when he did so.  

Putin has decided to ban food exports from Australia – including, fruit, vegetable, meat, fish and milk products, altogether worth around $350 million – for just 12 months. This is hardly catastrophic in what is a multi-billion dollar industry.

The former President of the National Farmers Federation, Duncan Fraser summed it up when he said Russian consumers will suffer more from Putin’s ban than Australian farmers.

Yet in a recent interview the former Australian Ambassador to Russia and Ukraine, Cavan Hogue, was calling on the Government to cave in. “What’s in it for us? It’s essentially a European problem,” he said - words that could just as easily have been attributed to Neville Chamberlain in 1938.

Chamberlain at least lived in an age where most countries seemed remote to the average citizen. In a world where everywhere is a few hours plane journey away and communications are virtually instantaneous, there is no excuse for Hogue’s insular views.

Fighting in Ukraine would have been our business even if Australians had not been among those on board MH17, just as Gaza is our business and Syria, and West Africa.

Hogue’s comments might have been understandable coming from someone struggling to comprehend the complications of international politics and diplomacy, but he is a former diplomat who should have some idea of just how interlinked the world is today.

In his interview Hogue said Australia would have probably been better served “by just keeping our big mouths shut”.  

If this is the level of his contribution to the debate, he would do well to follow his own advice.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Congress in disarray – the sniping begins

Just three months after its crushing defeat at the polls, India’s once mighty Congress Party is showing signs of stress, with a former senior Minister attacking the leadership.

Natwar Singh, who was forced to resign as Minister for External Affairs in 2005 after the Voicker inquiry into the Iraqi oil for food scandal accused him of corruption, used an interview in connection with his soon-to-be launched autobiography to lash out at Congress President Sonia Gandhi.

Long claiming Gandhi did not do enough to support him at the time of the inquiry and that he had been made a scapegoat for other’s misdeeds, Singh said her behaviour “towards a person who had been loyal to her family for 45 years”, showed what a ruthless person she was.

Claiming that Gandhi had wanted to be Prime Minister only to be talked out of it by her son, Rahul Gandhi, Singh said she exercised “total control” over the Congress Party.

And in a direct reference to her Italian origins Singh said in reply to a question: “Some part of her is not Indian”.

However, he said she was still a better politician than her husband and assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv who “depended wholly on a team of ignoramuses with inflated egos”.

The fact Sonia Gandhi was born outside India has been the subject of sniping from her political foes from time to time, but never from within Congress, where Nehru-Gandhi family members are considered political gods.

However that has been called into question after the election debacle, which reduced Congress to a rump of less than 60 seats in the Lok Sabha (Parliament). Some commentators have blamed the loss on an inept performance from Rahul Gandhi, the party’s Prime Ministerial candidate, who proved to be no match for his opponent, Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Singh has long been considered an embittered outsider and for the moment at least, senior Congress figures have closed ranks against him. Party spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi said Singh was simply trying to generate publicity for his forthcoming book.

“It is unfortunate that a person who rose to occupy a top post…misuses and distorts facts and publishes baseless things,” Singhvi said.   

Whether this loyalty survives five years – and quite possibly longer - in the political wilderness is an interesting, but as yet unanswered question in Indian politics.