IN MY column in the print edition I argued that the huge improvement in relations between Taiwan and China since 2008 does not seem to have led to any new enthusiasm in Taiwan for political union with the mainland. The hope, I wrote, is that China’s leaders will “enjoy the smoother relations and not ask where they are leading.”
That of course is also very much the hope in official circles in Washington. China has never renounced its threat to use force to “reunify” Taiwan one day, and America has strong—if vague—commitments to Taiwan’s security. The island was once its “unsinkable aircraft-carrier” and a keystone of its security strategy in the western Pacific. That all changed as America switched recognition to China in 1979.
However, the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979, passed just after it opened diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, obliges America “to consider any means to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means…a threat to the peace and security of the western Pacific and of grave concern to the United States.”
Two different sorts of questions have recently been raised about that and other promises contained in the TRA. A commentary published on March 1st by Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the US-Taiwan Business Council, a lobbying group, claims that “the American defence commitment to Taiwan continues to deteriorate.” As evidence it points to the delays in American approval of further arms sales to Taiwan. In particular, America is yet to agree to provide new fighter jets (F-16 C/Ds), as well as to upgrade Taiwan’s existing “Indigenous Defence Fighters” and American F-16 A/Bs.
American arms sales to Taiwan are of course an extremely sensitive issue in US-China relations. Despite a TRA commitment “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character”, America in 1982 issued its third “joint communiqué” with China. It said it “intends gradually to reduce its sales of arms to Taiwan.” So whenever new sales are made—as they were a year ago to the tune of more than $6 billion, China bridles. On that occasion it suspended high-level military contacts until January this year.
Yet the 2010 package was in fact part of a promise originally made by George W. Bush in 2001. Mr Hammond-Chambers and a number of analysts in Taiwan argue that Taiwan’s air defences are becoming dangerously aged, while China continues to expand and modernise its forces and weapons, including those pointing at Taiwan.
Officials in Taiwan say they were pleased that, when China’s president, Hu Jintao, was in America in January, Barack Obama referred to the TRA at a press conference. They are always listening keenly to hear which is given greater prominence—the 1982 communiqué, or the TRA and the “six assurances” America gave Taiwan about arms sales in 1982.
There is a debate in Taiwan, too, about whether the F-16 C/Ds are really necessary and desirable, given the friction their sale might cause. Some argue that the appeal for new fighter jets is part of the government’s effort not to appear soft towards China, and that a delay suits it quite well.
What would certainly not suit it is the argument made (behind a pay wall) in Foreign Affairs, an American policy journal, by Charles Glaser, a specialist in international relations. Exploring ways in which America can negotiate China’s rise without conflict, Mr Glaser points out that a crisis over Taiwan could “fairly easily escalate to nuclear war”. So America “should consider backing away from its commitment to Taiwan”. This would “smooth the way for better relations” with China.
He acknowledges the risks of such a strategy. First would be the loss of American credibility entailed in abandoning a long-standing ally that is now a vibrant democracy to a Communist claimant its people show little sympathy for. Second, China might find “its appetite whetted” for further concessions. However, he argues “territorial concessions” (an odd phrase since Taiwan is not America’s to concede) “are not always bound to fail.”
The fear in Taiwan is that, though such arguments are far from official American policy, they are gaining currency. But ever since 1979, American policy over Taiwan has been an exercise in calculated or accidental ambiguity. China has had to believe that America would intervene if it tried to take Taiwan by force. But America has had to leave just enough doubt about its intentions that Taiwan is not emboldened into a rash move that might provoke China into giving up on “peaceful reunification”. Mr Glaser may be helping those, like Mr Hammond-Chambers, who argue that those doubts are now too big.
FOR a foreigner, it is a moving exhibition about a little-known and terrible episode in Taiwan’s history. The “228 memorial museum”, reopened on February 20th by President Ma Ying-jeou in a “peace park” within view of his presidential palace, is sombre but informative.
There are mugshots of the victims of a massacre; long lists of their names; painful eyewitness testimony; contemporary photographs and clothes; a painting of blindfolded, bound men being executed. The slaughter was, according to one exhibit, “a Formosan holocaust that left an indelible scar”.
The museum recalls the carnage on the island in 1947. After half a century as a Japanese colony, Taiwan had been handed back to China at the end of the second world war. Its inhabitants found the incoming Chinese administration, under the governor, Chen Yi, even more corrupt and cruel than the Japanese. A classic 1965 book, "Formosa Betrayed" in which George Kerr, an American diplomat and eyewitness, recalled the massacre is now available in full online.
On February 27th 1947 a woman selling contraband cigarettes was brutally attacked by agents from the Alcohol and Tobacco Monopoly Bureau. The next day, protests against her treatment spread into an island-wide insurrection, which succeeded in gaining administrative control of parts of it. It was suppressed by Chinese troops at a cost in human lives that is still disputed—but in the tens of thousands (10,000-30,000). One exhibit describes the behaviour of soldiers and police as “illegal, disorderly and outrageous”.
Martial law was declared by the authorities from the then-ruling Nationalist party or Kuomintang (KMT). Reimposed in 1949, it was not to be lifted until 1987, maintained, in theory, to defend Taiwan against the threat of invasion by the Communists on the mainland.
“228” became unmentionable. After all, the KMT remained in power, and Taiwan's politics were dominated by the mainland-China born elite who had fled the Communist victory at the end of the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s. Many of the Taiwan-born majority felt oppressed. Their own post-war struggle for liberation from the dictatorship that Chiang Kai-shek brought to the island was belittled and ignored.
As Taiwan embraced democracy in the late 1980s and 90s, the past was disinterred. In 1995, Taiwan's president at the time, Lee Teng-hui of the KMT—a Taiwanese rather than a mainlander—apologised for the atrocity, and the memorial museum was opened in 1997. Then, from 2000-08, Taiwan had a president from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which draws on Taiwanese-nationalist sentiment. The DPP have always denied that Taiwan is part of China, arguing that it is, and should be, independent. The 228 massacre was central to their argument that Taiwan is a separate country, and that the idea of unification with China had been imposed, viciously, by Chinese troops.
So when the KMT ousted the DPP in the 2008 presidential elections and later closed the memorial museum “for renovation”, it was easy to assume that it would never reopen. But now it has. The DPP are predictably scathing about the changes the government has made, arguing that the exhibition sanitises the past, minimises the KMT’s guilt, and portrays a righteous popular uprising as mob violence.
I never saw the earlier exhibition, but it is hard to see this one as a whitewash. Rather, it seems a rare and commendable example of a country confronting the most painful episode in its past and admitting the scars it has left. For anyone who has spent time on the mainland, the contrast is stark.
Perhaps just as impressive was the treatment of a lone protester outside the museum when I visited. A young official from the city government suggested he take his protest elsewhere. Patiently and courteously, she reasoned with him longer than I had the patience or courtesy to wait.
TWO truths about the disputes in the South China Sea are well-recognised: they are extremely complex, and much misunderstood. An illuminating day-long conference at the Institute of South-East Asian Studies in Singapore on February 18th brought home a third. There is no realistic prospect of a settlement in the foreseeable future. The best that can be hoped is to manage the disputes without any resort to armed conflict.
Part of the difficulty is that the dispute has so many aspects—or rather there are so many separate disputes. The territorial issue that receives so much attention is itself a plethora of different and overlapping claims. China and Vietnam claim sovereignty over the Paracel island chain, from which China evicted Vietnam in 1974, in the dying days of the Vietnam war. Taiwan—because it is the “Republic of China”—mirrors China’s claim, so that huge unresolved dispute also has a bearing on this one. The same three parties also claim the Spratly archipelago, to the south. But in the south, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei also have partial claims.
Some of these arguments might in theory be soluble under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), established in 1982. Some of the parties have tried to align their claim with UNCLOS. In 2009, for example, Malaysia and Vietnam made a joint submission, showing where they thought their claims lay, based on their continental shelves. This implied that the Spratlys—a collection of reefs, rocks and tiny islands—were all too small to support human habitation and hence have their own exclusive economic zones (EEZs) under UNCLOS.
China, however, objected to that submission and tabled its own map, with nine dotted lines outlining its claim. Joined up, the dotted lines give it not just the two chains, but almost the whole sea. There seems to be no basis for this in UNCLOS. But China points to history. It says the map has been in use since the Republic of China published it in 1946, and, until quite recently, nobody minded. Indonesia, in turn, subsequently objected to China’s objection, which gave China a claim over some Indonesian waters, too. According to American officials, China has upped the ante by talking of its territorial claims in the South China Sea as a “core” national interest, on a par with Tibet and Taiwan.
There is a huge amount at stake. Besides fisheries, the sea, particularly around the Spratlys, is believed to be enormously rich in hydrocarbons. The lure of such riches ought to make it attractive to devise joint-development mechanisms so that all could benefit. In practice, the resources potentially available make it even harder for any country to moderate its claim.
The sea is also a vital shipping route, accounting for a big chunk of world trade. It is the importance of the freedom of navigation and of overflight that has given America its pretext for louder involvement. This was initially welcomed by the members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations when voiced at a regional forum in Hanoi in July last year, So fiercely did China object to America’s rather disingenuous offer of “mediation”, however, that some countries may now be ruing it.
So a second related dispute is between two regional superpowers: China and America. In particular, America and China differ over whether military activities are permissible in another country's EEZ. America insists they are. China objects to them and has on occasion harassed America’s spy planes and survey ships.
A third dispute is between China and ASEAN. These two reached a common “Declaration on Conduct” (DoC) in 2002 in an attempt to minimise the risk of conflict. But efforts to turn it into a formal and binding code have got nowhere, partly because of China’s anger at ASEAN’s attempts to develop a common approach.
China argues that ASEAN has no role in territorial issues, and insists on negotiating with the other claimants bilaterally. ASEAN sees this as an effort to pick off its members one by one. It argues that its own charter forces members to consult, as they do before each working group on the code of conduct (the next one is due in March).
Optimists point out that, distant though any settlement seems to be, at least the DoC has helped keep tensions down. Indeed, since 1988, when China and Vietnam clashed near the Spratlys, there have been no serious armed flare-ups. Tension rose in 1995, when China was found to have built on Mischief Reef, claimed by the Philippines. Fishermen are sometimes locked up for encroaching in another country’s claim. But the risk of escalation into conflict has seemed limited.
It is even possible to claim that the “self-restraint” the DoC calls for is being observed, since no new uninhabited islands or rocks have been occupied. However, that may be because none of those that is left is remotely big enough, and on those that were already occupied, building has continued, in some cases as if the claimants hope to turn rocks, or even “low-tide elevations”, into real islands—a practice not recognised under UNCLOS.
In their complexity, the South China Sea disputes provide material for endless scholarly bickering. Now that America has made it a focus for its re-engagement in Asia’s seas as a superpower and guarantor of the peace, and China has made clear it resents this, they also present some serious risks.
WHEN I reported last month on the “stir” in the north-Indian hill town of Darjeeling and surrounding areas, it was a relatively orderly, good-humoured affair. No longer. The death on February 8th of two members of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) at the hands of the state police has sharply heightened tensions. The GJM has been leading a largely peaceful campaign for a separate Indian state of Gorkhaland in the area, which is dominated by Nepali-speakers, and is at present part of the state of West Bengal.
The police were criticised for opening fire on an apparently unarmed crowd in the town of Sibchu. The police were reportedly not deployed in sufficient numbers and not equipped with rubber bullets. The Telegraph newspaper, based in Kolkata, West Bengal’s capital, quoted an unnamed police officer who accused the force of being ill-prepared because its members were used to being “idle spectators” who let GJM protesters do whatever they wanted. The police instead they acted in self-defence, and had tried lathis (bamboo staves) and tear gas before resorting to live fire.
In response to the deaths, the GJM has called a total “bandh”—a self-imposed curfew—and there have been reports of isolated violent incidents, including the torching of a police outpost. Even West Bengal’s tourism minister has advised visitors to stay away from the area. The other economic mainstay of the region—tea cultivation—has also been hit.
The campaign for statehood is a long-running one. Two factors have raised tensions since I wrote last. The first is the failure of the GJM’s campaign to make headway, which is leading to frustration both among activists and citizens fed up with the constant disruption of protest marches and bandhs.
The second is the impending West Bengal state election, due in the first half of this year. For the first time since 1977, there is a real chance that the “left” government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, might fall. The leader of the opposition in the state legislature has accused the CPM of unleashing a “reign of terror” in a bid to have the poll postponed.
For its part, the CPM has accused the GJM of “trying to fan ethnic violence” and has tried to tar its main electoral opponent, the Trinamool Congress, with the same brush, for “maintaining political links” with the GJM. Darjeeling’s member of the national parliament, Jaswant Singh, a leading light of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, has called for an investigation into police “atrocities”.
This unhelpful trading of accusations by state-and national-level politicians is not conducive to cooling tempers. This is worrying. In the 1980s, a violent campaign for statehood for Gorkhaland claimed more than 1,000 lives.
IT WAS just a normal early February day. But the morning newspaper in Pakistan made a sobering read. Ten people had been killed and 26 injured in a car-bombing near Peshawar in the north-west. Five policemen were shot dead in Balochistan. At least one security official in North Waziristan died in heavy firing from Afghanistan. The next day the United Nations reported that some 25,000 people had been displaced that week by fighting in Mohmand, a tribal agency bordering Afghanistan. It warned that the number could rise to 90,000.
This does not come as a surprise to the occasional visitor. Much of the news we read from Pakistan is a grisly catalogue of suicide-bombs, sectarian slaughter, political assassination, grinding insurgency and collateral damage from the war in Afghanistan.
So, on a first visit to Islamabad and Lahore in nearly five years, my initial response was to think how the relentless tide of such reporting obscures another truth about the country: how pleasant it can be; how helpful and hospitable the people; how many well-informed, articulate and enlightened cosmopolitans there are to talk to. In the past I have always argued that Pakistan has a tolerant, flexible core that is far more resilient than it is often given credit for. Surely, that remains true.
A second response, however, was to acknowledge how much worse things had got in those five years. Three sorts of decline stand out—the linked problems of worsening security and the spread of Islamist extremism, and the economy.
The visible signs of a security threat have proliferated. Entering a foreign embassy or international hotel in Islamabad was, even five years ago, a tedious passage through metal detectors and pat-downs. Now, the checks are even more cumbersome and more of the roads are interrupted by chicanes of concrete blocks or steel girders. The Marriott hotel, where I used to stay, was the site of a massacre in September 2008, when it was bombed and more than 50 people were killed. It is even better protected now.
It is amazing what you can get used to. After years of enduring a worsening terrorist threat, many Pakistanis seem inured to all this. Indeed, they can cling to the thought that last year was not as bad, in terms of violent incidents, as was 2009—though this may have been the result of the terrible flooding which disrupted terrorist as well as official logistics, and may have waterlogged untold stocks of bombs and ammunition.
What shocked many, however, was the assassination in January of Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab province, by one of his own bodyguards, and, in particular, the response to it. Fellow bodyguards let the self-confessed murderer, Mumtaz Qadri, get away with it; crowds have demonstrated in support of his apparent aim (to kill a man seen as a blasphemer for his campaign to amend a cruel and unjust blasphemy law); lawyers—yes, lawyers—have showered him with rose-petals. And hardly anyone has dared speak out to condemn the murder.
One who did, in Islamabad, rejects the label “liberal” for herself, but spoke of a candlelit vigil in honour of the dead governor, attended by about 100 people. “They can muster 40,000,” she said of the rallies against reform of the blasphemy law and in support of Mumtaz Qadri.
Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physicist and leading advocate of liberal, secular ideals, has written of his appearance on a television chat show with two Islamic spokesmen. The audience, of 100 or so students, clapped when his interlocutors called for death for blasphemers. When Mr Hoodbhoy accused one of them—a mullah from the “moderate” Barelvi school—of having Mr Taseer’s blood on his hands, the response was a lament: “How I wish I did!”
One of the commonplaces of analysis in Pakistan is that the roots of extremism lie not just in the war in Afghanistan and the “Islamisation” of public life introduced by General Zia ul-Haq a generation ago, but in economic hardship and lack of opportunity. The economy is lurching along on IMF-provided crutches, just a few months from the next crisis. Most people also agree about some of the basic reforms needed—in particular a broadening of the tax base. But the political parties want to make sure that it is the other parties whose voters’ pockets will suffer from the broadening. So reform is deadlocked.
Pakistan is indeed still not as bad as you might think from the newspaper headlines. And when Mr Hoodbhoy, for example, talks of an impending bloodbath it is still possible to think he exaggerates. But Pakistan is bloody enough already, and it is for now a depressing and frightening place. It is not just that the decline seems unimpeded by the end of Pervez Musharraf’s inept, corrupt military dictatorship and the advent of Asif Ali Zardari’s inept, corrupt and army-reliant civilian administration. It is that the arguments of those who claim the trend is remorseless and heading for disaster seem more persuasive than those I have deployed over the years to refute them.
A CONTROVERSY that has festered for years among Tibetans has flared up. Ever since the infant Ogyen Trinley Dorje was recognised in 1992 by both the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama as the 17th incarnation of the Karmapa Lama, head of one of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism, he has faced challenges from rival claimants. And ever since 1999, when he fled from Tibet to India, some Indians have been suspicious of him, fearing that China helped him escape, hoping to make use of him.
Now he has been questioned by the Indian police after huge amounts of cash—the equivalent of $1.6m in some reports—in various currencies, including Chinese yuan, were seized from Gyuto, the monastery he occupies near the Dalai Lama’s base in Dharamsala, in northern India. Two people have been arrested in connection with the incident.
The suspicion is that some of the money came from China, for the Karmapa to use to buy influence in Tibetan monasteries in India, notably in Sikkim—where the 16th Karmapa had his seat at Rumtek monastery. On January 31st India’s home minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, said no conclusion had been drawn as to whether he was a Chinese agent or not. China’s government, for its part, has felt moved to deny that it sent a living Buddha into India to spy for it, and has lamented the “mistrustful attitude” the Indian suspicions betray.
The Karmapa has denied any wrongdoing and has said the money was donated by adherents. It is true that his lineage has many wealthy backers. His predecessor’s monastery at Rumtek (pictured below) has a lavishly financed institute, with plaques listing donors from all over the world. And the 17th Karmapa’s audiences at Gyuto are packed with pilgrims with deep pockets.
As if the embarrassing hoard of cash were not enough, the doubts about Ogyen Trinley’s claim to be the Karmapa have also been aired again. The Times of India has reported that his medical records have gone missing from an institute at Chandigarh in the state of Punjab, where he was examined after reaching India. The significance is that his opponents claim they showed him to be older than stated on the birth certificate he provided attested by the Dalai Lama, implying he is too old to be the true incarnation.
Thousands have thronged Gyuto to show their solidarity with the Karmapa. He has a big following for a number of reasons: his predecessor’s success in building a global network; his own stature and charisma; and the support of the Dalai Lama himself. The Dalai Lama, too, has backed his protégé, though chiding him gently for sending “wrong signals” by keeping the money in cash.
It does seem incredible that China and the Karmapa are in cahoots, or even that China connived in his escape and has been using him as a stooge. His flight to India was humiliating for China: even a young monk it had feted and nurtured to help bolster its rule in Tibet rejected it in the most dramatic way. But as I suggested in my print column on January 8th, the ructions the Karmapa disputes have caused among exiled Tibetans may have given China the last laugh.
They also have implications for another theme of that column—the Dalai Lama’s hints at his own retirement from political involvement. The Karmapa is perhaps the only other exile who could come close to unifying Tibetans. His troubles make the Dalai Lama’s hopes of a retreat into a purely religious role even harder to realise.
Even the road to parliament itself is flooded; an amphibious carrier ports politicians through Colombo
IN THE spate of catastrophic floods wreaking havoc from Australia to Brazil, the biblical disaster afflicting Sri Lanka has not received the global attention it merits.
The death toll is still below 40. But in terms of the numbers of people displaced and farmland inundated, the floods have been even more devastating than the tsunami of December 2004.
According to the government’s figures, more than 1m people have been affected, nearly 400,000 displaced and over 200,000 are still in emergency camps.
A further hazard stems from the large number of landmines sown during Sri Lanka’s long civil war, which ended less than two years ago. The United Nations has warned that floodwaters might shift undetected mines and other explosives to areas thought safe.
Many of those suffering from the floods, in the east of the country, are members of the Tamil minority, in whose name the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam waged its long bloody secessionist campaign. Many suffered both the Tigers’ brutality and the ferocity of the government assault that ended the war in 2009.
Optimists hope that flood relief will give the government a chance to achieve reconciliation with this alienated minority. They note that President Mahinda Rajapaksa on January 14th reiterated his commitment to sharing power at the centre, and devolving it to Tamil-majority areas.
The disaster may also offer the chance to repair damaged relations with international donors and aid agencies, as well as with domestic NGOs. These frayed in the war’s last days, as Sri Lanka’s government restricted access to the conflict and was accused by some agencies of committing war crimes in its haste to defeat the Tigers.
Some international agencies, frustrated at government restrictions, have quit the country. Foreign aid workers have found it hard to get visas. Aid flows from the West have been cut back.
Now, as the floodwaters are beginning to recede, the need for relief supplies is huge. On January 20th the United Nations is to launch a “flash” appeal for assistance. If help is inadequate or given grudgingly, doubtless some in Sri Lanka will feel victimised.
As for the local NGOs, Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council, a Sri Lankan NGO, has written in his weekly e-mail column of the lingering suspicions between the government and the NGOs.
“The constant stream of statements by government politicians with a nationalist orientation that NGOs are a threat to national security have had their impact upon public consciousness. It is inevitable that in these circumstances the ability of NGOs to supplement the work of the government in terms of emergency response will be limited and the response will be muted.”
The tsunami came during an uneasy ceasefire in the war with the Tigers. The distribution of aid became a contentious issue and actually contributed to the breakdown of the truce. This time, the hope must be it can help build a lasting peace.
ANYONE doubting the theme of an editorial in The Economist’s Christmas issue that “hope is on the move” from the West might have thought again after this week’s “regional outlook” forum held in Singapore by the Institute of South-East Asian Studies.
Asia’s economic prospects for the year were deemed healthy by private economists and the IMF alike. A forecast slowdown to 7% annual growth for Asia (excluding Japan) hardly sounds the stuff of nightmares. Inflation is becoming a worry but governments still have policy weapons in reserve to keep it under control.
Politically and in terms of regional security, there is less cause for universal optimism. Thailand faces a troubling year, not to mention the more obvious hotspots of the Korean peninsula, Afghanistan and Pakistan. But even these seem almost minor disruptions compared with the big story: the rapid rise of China, India and the two-fifths of the world population who live there.
For a real dose of sobering gloom, the invited keynote speaker was an imported European, Jacques Attali, a Frenchman with a distinguished career as academic, development-bank boss, presidential adviser, author, consultant and all-round “public intellectual”.
Mr Attali began by quibbling with the theme he had been given; “Repositioning Asia after the crisis”. It was the word “after” he balked at. For him a private-debt crisis in the West had been “solved” by turning it into a public-debt crisis and then by resorting to the printing press. In the past, he said, this strategy has usually ends in “inflation, war or both”. This would be what the optimistic regional economists glossed over as “external shocks”.
His most chilling observation, however, was a comparison between Asian optimism now and European and American buoyancy in the early 1900s. Then, as now, technological advance was transforming the world, and globalisation bringing unheard-of prosperity. Communism was almost unknown and fascism and Nazism still to emerge.
Yet, within a few years, the world was to enter a “dark age” that did not end until 1989 (as Mr Attali sees it—a view probably not shared by most of the West’s baby-boomer generation, who had things pretty good).
Of course, Mr Attali was far from predicting any such disaster for Asia; just sounding a cautionary note against irrational exuberance and hubris. As we noted at Christmas: “As for the Westerners’ gloom, it has its uses.”
OF INDIA’S million mutinies, the one still roiling the hill town of Darjeeling and its surrounding tea-growing areas in the north of the state of West Bengal is a long-running one. Back in 1907, the region’s residents, dominated by Nepali-speaking ethnic Gorkhas, demanded administrative autonomy from the then British colonial capital, Calcutta (now Kolkata).
They are still doing it, seeking to break away from West Bengal, whose capital is still Kolkata. Huge marches, segregated by sex, chant for “statehood” for Gorkhaland as they snake up Darjeeling’s steep narrow streets to the Chowrasta, the main square. Virtually every shop is clearly marked with the word “Gorkhaland”. Fluttering ubiquitously is thegreen, white and yellow flagof the Gorkhaland Janmukti Morcha (GJM), the party leading the statehood campaign (its women's brigade is pictured above).
Their campaign has been largely peaceful, but disruptive. The favourite tactic is thebandh—ie, a strike or self-imposed curfew. This shuts schools, shops and offices, and often cuts transport links. In December the GJM called off plans for a two-day bandh, despite the government's missing an ultimatum to agree to a new interim administrative set-up for thearea—the Gorkhaland Regional Authority—which would in itself have been far less than the full state it formally demands.
On January 12th, however, it is to launch a four-day bandh, the first of several to be spread over a month. If that does not work, the GJM’s leaders have threatened a hunger-strike from February 16th.
The latest outburst was provoked by the publication on January 6th of a report on an entirely different statehood campaign—for carving a new state, Telangana, out of Andhra Pradesh, in the south of India. The report has provokeda bandh in Andhra Pradesh itself, for failing to give unequivocal support for the state.
The GJM’s beef is the opposite of the pro-Telangana protesters': the partisans of Gorkhaland are incensed that their own demand is not being accorded similar priority. GJM leaders are themselves under pressure, after being accused of involvement in the assassination last May of an ethnic-Gorkha politician from a rival group. Early this month there was an ugly clash in one village where locals turned on members of the “Gorkhaland Personnel”, a pro-GJM vigilante group whose thuggish reputation helps explain why shopkeepers are so diligent in advertising their pro-Gorkhaland loyalties.
In the past, the demand for Gorkhaland has been bloody. Even the moderate GJM’s flag shows the sun, the Himalayas, and crossedkukris—traditional curved Gorkha daggers. A violent campaign by a liberation front in the 1980s led to the establishment in 1988 of a Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council. But protesters say the autonomy it was promised then has never been forthcoming.
Their demands seem fanciful. Telangana would have a population of 35m. GJM activists say about 1.5m live in the jurisdiction they are demanding—ie, about 0.1% of India’s population and less than 1% of that of Uttar Pradesh, the biggest of India’s 28 existing states.
The GJM points out, however, that Gorkhaland would have twice as many people as neighbouring Sikkim. Some have eyed enviously the money that has flowed into Sikkim since its incorporation into India in 1975, and the benefits its residents enjoy, such as privileged access to government jobs. Indeed, some Gorkhas would like to see their area merged with Sikkim, which is already home to a significant Gorkha population.
Another group, however, has gone further and called foroutright independence for Gorkhaland. That is surely not on the cards. Many locals think the same about statehood. In last year’s general election, the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), campaigned on a platform of support for smaller states, including Gorkhaland. That probably won the BJP some votes. But not enough.
A FRIEND reports having seen the following sign as he approached a pass on a road in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu: “Danger! Beautiful View Ahead!” A giant version of the sign would go down well on the roads of North Bengal and Sikkim. In the Himalayan foothills, mountains are steep, roads narrow, ridges precipitous, bends hairpins, landslides common, potholes endemic and views spectacular.
The sign is also a reminder, however, of one of the unsung contemporary art forms of modern India: the composition of road-safety slogans.
The most popular form is the short rhyming couplet: “Do Not Dare! Drive With Care!”, “Caution And Care Make Accidents Rare!” Or: “On Our Roads, Don’t Overload!” Sometimes sense gets strained for poetic effect: “Blow Horn, Don’t Get Torn!”
Some signs offer sensible but rarely followed advice: “Leave Early; Drive Slowly; Arrive Safely”.
There is the occasional pun: “Safety On Road; Safe Tea At Home!” or “Reach Home In Peace, Not In Pieces!” A particularly scholarly instance: “Such Is The Paradox; On Our Roads Left Is Right!”
Some aspire almost to the level of philosophy: “Life Is Short! Don’t Make It Shorter!” My own favourite is “Better Late Than Never”.
All the above examples come from a recent tour of the northern part of West Bengal, and East and South Sikkim. Missing, oddly, are any of the anti-drink-driving slogans common elsewhere in India. Bengalis love Sikkim’s cheap booze. Perhaps the distilleries have some political clout.
And, continuing into West Sikkim, where the roads are equally exciting, road-safety signs petered out. Plenty of prayer flags, though.
SPEAKING at a forum in Tokyo this week, Liu Guangxi, a leading Chinese economic expert, and official in the State Administration of Exchange Control, has forecast that it will not take long for China’s currency, the yuan, to be “internationalised”. Such predictions have become common; and piecemeal reforms are indeed making the yuan more of an international currency.
But there remains considerable confusion abroad about China’s intentions for the yuan, and debate at home about how fast and how far to go with internationalising the currency.
A very useful account of the state of the debate in China has been published by the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, and the Asia Centre at SciencesPo, an elite French college.
Called “Redbacks for Greenbacks”, it makes clear that the yuan’s overseas expansion might not follow the sort of linear progression many in the West have assumed.
In the conventional scenario, the yuan’s use for trade purposes would gradually be increased, as evidenced, for example, by last year’s opening of bilateral yuan “swap” facilities with a number of China’s emerging-market trading partners.
At the same time, it would become a currency of international investment. There have been more yuan-denominated bond issues offshore, and it has been made easier for foreigners to invest in the domestic bond market. In September it was reported that Malaysia’s central bank had been allowed to diversify some of its holdings of foreign exchange into the yuan.
The assumption has been, however, that this internationalisation would be accompanied by a liberalisation, in two important respects: that the yuan would become fully convertible (it has been convertible for trade and other current-account purposes since 1996; but restrictions remain on capital-account convertibility); and that its exchange rate would become market-based, rather than, as now, managed to maintain a roughly fixed peg to the dollar.
Indeed if, as some Chinese officials would like, the yuan is to become one of the basket of currencies that make up the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights, it would need to be freely convertible.
So internationalisation presents China with a dilemma. Many officials cherish a global role for the yuan both as a status symbol and as a way of checking American dominance of the world’s financial system. But they also fear the upward pressure on the value of the yuan that a looser exchange-rate regime and full convertibility imply.
So one theme of the debate covered in the report is how internationalisation can be achieved without liberalisation. It is, in this sense, a metaphor for Chinese politics, too.
Two other interesting recent reports cover developments in financial co-operation within Asia. One, from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank, asks how worried the West should be by financial co-operation among Asian countries and by China’s increasingly dominant role in the process—notably the (cumbersomely named) Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralisation.
The former suggests Asian regionalism is not yet a serious threat to the current international financial order; and the prospects for serious co-ordination of the region’s exchange rate still seem distant. But after the near-death experience of the American-led financial order in 2008-09, the hunt for regional alternatives and defence mechanisms is gathering pace.
THE terms “Central Asia” and “coalition government” have rarely, if ever, sat in the same sentence. But on November 30th, after weeks of haggling following an election in October, three parties in Kyrgyzstan announced agreement to form a government. They are just in time to greet America’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, when she flies in to the capital, Bishkek, on December 2nd, and, if they feel so bold, to discuss with her two of the more entertaining American diplomatic cables so far released by WikiLeaks.
Uniquely among the five “stans”—former Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union—Kyrgyzstan has had two people-power revolutions since independence in 1991. Both in 2005 and in April this year, people have taken to the streets to topple presidents seen as dictatorial, nepotistic and corrupt.
The transitional government that took power this year when Kurmanbek Bakiyev was driven into exile vowed to put an end to strongman rule. It secured approval for a constitution turning the country into the region’s first parliamentary democracy. The rules, designed to ensure no party could become too powerful, made coalition government almost inevitable.
Many governments elsewhere in the region, where strongmen still rule, will be hoping this experiment fails. It does indeed have the odds stacked against it. Bloody ethnic violence directed at the Uzbek minority in the south in June has left deep scars. And, though the political system may be brand new, the politicians are the same old faces. They are survivors from previous regimes, and members of the small elite which has squabbled so viciously in the past. An explosion in Bishkek this week at the court where some of Mr Bakiyev's allies face trial for the shooting of protesters in April showed the continuing danger of violence.
Kyrgyzstan does enjoy an advantage, however: geography. Its strategic location makes it courted by the great powers. Both America and Russia maintain military bases near Bishkek. The American Manas air base, or “transit centre”, as it is now called, is used for supporting American and NATO troops in Afghanistan. It is an important part of a northern supply route developed because of the vulnerability of convoys coming through the Khyber Pass from Pakistan. Russia’s base in Kant is part of an agreement by the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, which groups together seven members of the former Soviet Union, to set up a counter-terrorism base in the region.
Russia, the former imperial power, still sees Central Asia as very much its own stamping-ground, so the Manas base has been a source of friction. In 2009 Mr Bakiyev promised Russia it would be closed and was promised aid in return. He reneged on the deal when America increased the rent it was paying.
Now, thanks to WikiLeaks, we know that Kyrgyzstani politicians had told America last year that China also offered it $3 billion if it would close the base. The idea seems improbable but not impossible. China’s behaviour over North Korea, after all, is often interpreted as intended to keep that country as a “buffer”, and avoid having American troops on its own border—as they already are in Kyrgyzstan.
In a very amusing account of her confronting China’s ambassador with this claim, America’s envoy, Tatiana Gfoeller, notes that it made him splutter and temporarily lose the power of Russian speech, but not quite issue a categorical denial. He did, however, say the idea was impossible and that China had only commercial interests in Kyrgyzstan. He looked daggers at his otherwise silent aide when he interjected (presumably in jest) the suggestion that “maybe you should give them $5 billion and buy both us and the Russians out.”
Ms Gfoeller might have a second career as a comic writer. Her other contribution to the WikiLeaks revelations is a laugh-out-loud account of a brunch meeting last year between British businessmen and Prince Andrew, a member of Britain’s royal family who, bizarrely, has a diplomatic role as a “trade envoy”. Conversation over brunch turns to corruption, about which the prince appears to have strong (and surprising) views. His apparently devoted audience “chorused that nothing gets done in Kyrgyzstan if President Bakiyev’s son Maksim does not get ‘his cut’.”
This reminds the prince of France. But though the younger Mr Bakiyev, who fled to Britain to seek political asylum, denies involvement in any malpractice, it is also a reminder that the culture of close and dubious links between political power and commercial opportunity is deeply rooted in Kyrgyzstan as elsewhere in the region. One perception Mrs Clinton will want to change is that America, in its keenness to keep Manas going, ploughed money into companies linked with Maksim Bakiyev, and helped prop up a now discredited regime.
THE word “Dickensian” is often bandied about in descriptions of China’s hell-for-leather modernisation. The back-breaking labour; the social dislocation; the throat-rasping air pollution: much that China has experienced in the past three decades was chronicled in the 19th century by Charles Dickens, writing about Britain’s own industrial revolution.
But seldom can the term have had such a direct parallel as in the extraordinary story, reported by the BBC, of Wei Xinping, a man who makes his living plying the Yellow River in search of corpses. In seven years, he has found 500 dead bodies. Some he has turned to a profit, by charging families for a chance to identify their dead loved ones, or for taking them home. They were, according to the report, suicides, murder victims or accidental deaths—those “swept away” in the rush for growth.
The Dickensian echo is the first chapter of “Our Mutual Friend”, where the novel’s heroine, Lizzie Hexham, helps her father retrieve a corpse from the Thames, London’s river. This, it emerges, is his livelihood. The book is a sort of allegory of the perils of greed; or, at the national level, of the dangers of a race for growth that forgets its purpose is to improve human life.
ONCE again, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the Burmese opposition, is in theory at liberty. Her latest spell of house arrest ended on November 13th, when she came briefly out of her home in Yangon, where she had been detained, to greet a crowd of thousands of delighted supporters. In the past, such spells of freedom have been illusory. The junta has placed such strict limits on her activities that she has in effect simply been released into a larger prison.
This time, Miss Suu Kyi emerges into a somewhat changed political landscape. On November 7th the junta staged the first elections for 20 years. They were designed not so much to pass power to civilian politicians as to entrench the junta's own power. Its front “party” has indeed claimed a massive victory. But the polls have at least allowed a tiny flicker of pluralist light into the murk of Burmese totalitarianism.
The question now is how Miss Suu Kyi will fit into the new set-up. If the past is any guide, she will soon try to behave like a politician. Already she has said, through her lawyer, that she will accept no restrictions on her movement. And she has promised to speak to her supporters at her party headquarters on November 14th.
But the party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been officially disbanded and the junta has never before shown much tolerance for her political activities. It resents her huge international popularity—she won the Nobel peace prize in 1991—and, having suppressed every sign of political opposition at home, fears that she alone has the popular following to mount a serious challenge to its rule.
Even before her release, hundreds of people had gathered near her house and outside the headquarters of the erstwhile NLD. This is remarkable, given the blackout imposed on her by Myanmar’s stultifying mass media, composed of junta mouthpieces.
But then Miss Suu Kyi is a remarkable figure. Her heritage, as the daughter of Aung San, Myanmar’s independence hero, was always in her favour. So was her charisma, which swayed huge crowds when she returned from exile in Britain to Myanmar in 1988 to look after her ailing mother. Even under house arrest, her persona helped lead the League to a landslide victory in the previous election, in 1990, whose results were never honoured. And her extraordinary fortitude in surviving two decades of relentless persecution has earned the respect and loyalty of her followers.
She is not without critics, however. The junta seems more firmly entrenched than ever, even after its attempt to don a civilian disguise with the farcically rigged elections. Her own refusal to compromise must be accorded some of the blame. In 1995, she pulled the League from a “national convention” drafting a new constitution. Eventually, as was always certain, it came up with the answer the junta had dreamed up in the first place: continued military dominance. The result was then endorsed in a fraudulent referendum in 2008.
This year again, Miss Suu Kyi advised the League to boycott the election. This led to its formal disbandment, and a split, with a breakaway group contesting the polls. Principled though they were, both boycotts may well have been mistakes. To be fair, both processes were so thoroughly crooked that affording them any degree of legitimacy would also have seemed repellent.
This is the third time Miss Suu Kyi has been “freed”, since she was first detained in 1989. Huge hopes were raised by her freedom in 1995, when the junta allowed the world’s media in to meet her. For a fleeting moment, it seemed she might be allowed to function as a politician. (This time, foreign journalists are banned, as they were for the election, and Burmese embassies and consulates are hard at work weeding out hacks posing as “tourists”.)
The junta would not tolerate her attempts to travel around the country to meet members of her party and other supporters. In 2000 she was detained for 19 months. Freed in December 2002, she was locked up again in 2003, when the junta somehow managed to blame her for a massacre, in which a convoy she was travelling in was attacked by pro-junta thugs.
It managed to extend this period of detention yet further in May last year, again blaming her for being the victim of a crime—when an American of dubious sanity, claiming to be a mission from God, swam across the lake outside her house to meet her.
This latest period of detention ended on November 13th. The junta has always shown a perverse punctiliousness in following the letter of its arbitrarily enforced repressive laws. So that deadline was probably one reason why the date of the election was set a bit before her release—even now, the generals cannot be sure how she will affect public opinion.
Here Banyan should perhaps declare an interest. He met Miss Suu Kyi several times in the late 1990s and remains in awe of her courage, dignity and even sense of humour. Those who now portray her as a principled but rigid dogmatist, unwilling to make the slightest concession to the junta, forget that she used to face just the opposite criticism. When she was “freed” in 1995, it was to preach the virtues of dialogue and compromise, against those, still buoyed by the electoral triumph in 1990, who thought the junta might simply be swept away. Miss Suu Kyi’s true rigidity was to stick to Gandhian principles. She abhors the violence that would have been entailed by the kind of people-power revolution that some of her supporters had hoped she would lead.
“They have to understand that flexibility and weakness are completely different,” she told The Economist at the time. A steel wire, she said, is strong because it is flexible; a glass rod is rigid but may shatter. In the years since, the junta has done its best to turn her into a glass rod. It has yet to succeed.
SPEAKING at a conference organised by The Economist in Beijing on November 3rd, Pang Zhongying, an expert on international relations at People’s University in that city, accused America of pursuing old-fashioned “balance-of-power politics”. Watching President Barack Obama in action this week, it is easy to see what he means.
Mr Obama’s four-country tour of Asia might have been designed to play on Chinese fears of American encirclement. Of course, it was not. Two of the four are on the itinerary as hosts of important international summits—the G20 in South Korea and APEC (Asia-Pacific Co-operation) in Japan.
However, add in the first two stops—a much-hyped trip to India and a twice-delayed visit to his childhood home in Jakarta—and he has ended up with a tour of important Asian democracies, from the largest to the richest (or now, in per-person terms, second-richest).
In India and Indonesia, this has given him the chance to stress shared values, and to challenge the notion that democracy and development need be at odds. Speaking to a joint session of both houses of the Indian parliament, he flattered his audience with the words “instead of being lured by the false notion that progress must come at the expense of freedom, you built the institutions upon which true democracy depends.” He went on: “India has succeeded, not in spite of democracy; India has succeeded because of democracy.”
He made the same point in his speech at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta: “Your achievements demonstrate that democracy and development reinforce one another.” Under the 32-year Suharto dictatorship Indonesia used to be held up as a model of how authoritarian rule could foster development.
Mr Obama’s harping on this theme will be viewed in Beijing as a direct rebuff to talk of a “Beijing consensus”, or “Chinese model” for developing countries. It has been echoed in his repeated denunciations of the rigged election held in Myanmar at the weekend, which the Chinese media have reported as a success.
There are other ways in which his trip will be seen as a response to Chinese assertiveness and commercial success. The heavy emphasis on trade ties with Indonesia and India comes after the very rapid build-up in both countries of trade with China—already India’s largest trading partner, and Indonesia’s third-biggest export market.
Even the gesture that seemed to win Indian hearts, his explicit support for a permanent Indian seat on the United Nations Security Council, could be interpreted as having half an eye on China. Not only would it dilute Chinese influence in the body; it will also make China’s opposition to an Indian seat more obvious, and thus help sour relations between the two giants.
Mr Obama’s tour, moreover, is only part of a concerted drive in Asia by his senior officials in recent months. Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, has just returned home after a seven-country tour (including China). In Cambodia, which is becoming something of a Chinese client state, she warned her hosts about the dangers of dependency on one ally.
Robert Gates, America's defence secretary, has also been in the region. In Malaysia, one of several countries which dispute territory in the South China Sea with China, he discussed, among other things, “increasing military-to-military co-operation” and “maritime security”, though Malaysia's defence minister insisted China was a "traditional friend" and that Malaysia did not feel bullied. Both Mr Gates and Mrs Clinton were earlier in Australia for annual talks. The administration talks of wanting to strengthen ties with all four of its regional allies—Australia, Japan, South Korea and Thailand.
Of course, none of this is explicitly directed at China. And Mr Obama made a point in his speech in Delhi about how America was “deepening” its relationship with China. But to prickly nationalists, such as those who write the editorials at Global Times, an English-language newspaper in Beijing, it all looks fishy. In Asia, it wrote on November 10th, “US foreign policy basically encourages disagreements among Asian countries, especially by rallying Asian countries against China. The US then collects the fruit.”
China's suspicions of American behaviour run deep. To the extent they act as a constraint on its behaviour towards its neighbours, which has in recent months at times verged on the belligerent, that may be no bad thing.
MORE than two years ago a report prepared for the United Nations by an independent “Asia Commission on AIDS” confirmed what had long been obvious to people working in the field: that “men who buy sex are the single-most powerful driving force in Asia’s HIV epidemics.” It estimated that about 10m Asian women sold sex to 75m men, who in turn had a further 50m regular partners.
Yet it took until this month to convene a meeting that brought together government officials, the UN, NGOs and several dozen of the region’s sex-workers to discuss responses to the HIV epidemic. Eight countries (Cambodia, China, Fiji, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and Thailand) were represented. The meeting was held in Pattaya, a Thai seaside resort (selected not for its aptness—it has one of Thailand’s highest concentrations of go-go bars, massage parlours and other shop windows for the sex trade—but because nearby Bangkok is still under a state of emergency).
It was the wholehearted participation of the sex-workers that made the meeting seem a breakthrough. In the past they have tended to be excluded from such international gatherings, partly because of language difficulties (“We learned English from our clients,” as one Thai sex-worker, a man, complained), and partly out of an attitude of official condescension, which saw the sex-workers more as the problem than as an important part of the solution.
Despite that, there has already been great progress. Thailand’s is perhaps best-known. The first country in Asia to launch the “100% condom-use programme” in the early 1990s, it managed to cut HIV prevalence sharply. The danger now is of complacency.
More surprisingly, Myanmar has an HIV-prevention scheme seen as a model. The “Targeted Outreach Programme” is a “peer-to-peer” service with 18 drop-in centres around the country, where 350 staff, mostly former or present sex-workers themselves, dispense advice, information, treatment for sexually transmitted infections and discounted condoms. Kay Thi Win, a manager of the programme, says that HIV prevalence among sex-workers has dropped to just over 9%. (The UN’s own figures show a drop from over 30% in 2000-06 to 15% in 2007 and 18% in 2008.)
However, a Burmese sex-worker made a passionate intervention at the conference lamenting the stigma her profession carries. There as elsewhere, sex-workers are subject to harassment, violence and extortion. And the police and officials who should be protecting them are often the worst perpetrators.
An example that has drawn a lot of recent attention is Cambodia, recognised for its success in bring down HIV prevalence, partly through its own 100% condom-use programme. But a 2008 law on “the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation” led to the closure of brothels and the shift of the sex trade to bars and other places, complicating HIV-prevention measures. Worse, according to Human Rights Watch, it has helped “police abuse sex-workers with impunity”. They have been beaten, raped and robbed—or forced to pay a bribe—to free themselves.
This is an extreme example of two problems besetting efforts to help sex-workers. One is that, in most places, sex work is illegal. As a recent Economist debate showed, arguments for and against decriminalising prostitution are fierce. But as long as it remains a criminal act, sex workers will be vulnerable to arbitrary abuse.
Second, the debate about sex work has become drowned in an international campaign against human trafficking. That campaign fosters the assumption that all sex-workers are plying their trade against their will. But most migrant sex-workers have left home for good reasons of their own—that they prefer to work away from their families, and where the commercial opportunities are better. This is a debate as old as the oldest profession: some see those who sell sex as always inevitably the victims of exploitation; but those seeking to have their voices heard in Pattaya wanted recognition as independent actors who have made their own choices, but demand the dignity and rights anybody deserves.
LIKE a dog’s walking on its hind legs, an Asian defence ministers’ meeting surprises not for being done well, but being done at all. On October 12th defence ministers from the ten members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), along with America, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia and South Korea convened in Hanoi.
Not much has yet come out of the meeting. But it may turn out to be an important building block in the region’s security architecture.
Already it has provided a forum for the two biggest armies in the region—America’s and China’s—to resume contacts. These were suspended by China in anger at America’s continued sales of arms to Taiwan. China, understandably, sees these as in breach of America’s 1982 promise gradually to reduce weapons sales.
In Hanoi, however, Robert Gates, America’s defence secretary, met his Chinese counterpart, General Liang Guanglie, and agreed to visit Beijing early next year to resume high-level military dialogue. Improved communication is in everyone’s interests, especially at a time when China’s maritime activities are causing regional alarm, and minor incidents could quickly get out of hand.
That is one reason why the meeting in Hanoi is important. China’s fierce response to the arrest by the Japanese authorities of a Chinese trawler captain, who had rammed two Japanese coastguard vessels in disputed waters, was closely watched in South-East Asia.
In the South China Sea, China (and Taiwan, whose claims mirror China’s) have various disputes: over the Paracel islands, which it occupies, but Vietnam claims; over other reefs and atolls; and over the Spratly chain, claimed in whole or in part by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and, again, Vietnam.
China has published a map which shows virtually the whole sea as its own, giving rise to a potential further maritime dispute with Indonesia.
China has so far refused to discuss any of this in multilateral forums, preferring to pick off rival claimants one by one. Fears about its intentions are one factor behind a big boost in military spending in the region.
Egged on by some of the countries in the region, America weighed into this row in July, when Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, told the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), a talking-shop on security, that her country had a national interest in the sea (ie, the freedom of navigation), and would like to see peaceful, multilateral negotiations.
This attempt to “internationalise” the issue infuriated China, and the defence ministers meeting in Hanoi were unable to do more than air differences, at best. General Liang repeated China’s view that “practical co-operation within multilateral frameworks does not mean settling all security issues.” The meeting should cover “easier issues”. But it may already have encouraged China to ease tensions. As it opened, China was reported to have freed nine Vietnamese fisherman it detained last month.
If, as seems likely, the forum becomes a regular event, it offers one of the more hopeful bases for security co-operation. Its membership is at present confined to the countries admitted to the East Asia Summit, to be held later this month, also in Hanoi (though America and Russia will not formally join until next year).
This gives it a tighter focus than the ARF. It also helps explain why the European Union is so keen on membership of the summit—of the plethora of initials littering the calendar of regional leaders, the EAS may turn out to be one where a few things are actually decided.
DISTURBING pictures of Nepali police in riot gear carting off ballot boxesillustrate both China’s clout in Nepal and its fears about the activities of Tibetan exiles. This was a primary election held among some 80,000 exiles to pick candidates for polls for a new parliament-in-exile and prime minister next year. The Nepali government has made sure that votes in the primary in Nepal at least will not count.
Most of the 120,000 or so exiled Tibetans are in India—either in the north, where the government-in-exile, and Tibet’s spiritual leader, have their seat in the Himalayan foothills at Dharamsala, or in the southern state of Karnataka. Every year more join them, mostly by fleeing the Tibet Autonomous Region of China through Nepal.
Some 20,000 live in Nepal, about half of them eligible to vote. In recent years, Nepal, at China’s behest, has curbed their political activities, such as protests. In 2005, floundering and looking to China to prop up his regime, the former king, Gyanendra, closed the Dalai Lama's representative office in Kathmandu. China has obvious objections to an election for a government-in-exile it does not recognise, and which supports the Dalai Lama, whom it regards as the source of many of its troubles in Tibet.
There are two other reasons why China objects to the voting. It does not want the world—or China—to be reminded that the Dalai Lama has insisted his exiled compatriots embrace democracy. Rather, it prefers to depict him as the representative of a cruel feudal elite which forced the miserable masses into monasteries or serfdom.
Also, the Dalai Lama’s advanced age—he is now 75—give elections increased importance, as the government elected may have to cope with the difficult transition to a new incarnation.
Nepal, sandwiched between two huge and overbearing neighbours, India and China, has no desire to antagonise either. India is by far the bigger influence in Nepal. To keep it in check, Nepal seeks good relations with China. One sure way of ruining those would be to show any sympathy to the Dalai Lama and his followers.
THE BBC has reported discontent and low-level disobedience in the tatmadaw, the Burmese armed forces. According to the report, some soldiers, angry at cuts in rations, and at not being given access to their savings, are refusing orders to carry out basic tasks—sentry duty, “fatigues” and so on.
The report is based on conversations with soldiers in garrison towns. It is not clear how widespread is the disgruntlement, nor how long-standing the grievances are. But any unhappiness among its soldiers will be unwelcome to the ruling junta as it prepares to hold and rig an election on November 7th.
In the last election, in 1990, the junta was surprised by the massive victory by the opposition, which won seats even in districts dominated by army barracks. Since then, the army has more than doubled in strength, to about 500,000, despite ceasefires in most of the country’s long-running border insurgencies. That is one reason to expect that this election will not bring any surprises. Another, of course, is that much of the opposition is in jail, detention or exile, or is boycotting the poll.
The report is also a reminder of the work of the BBC Burmese Service (to declare an interest: I once worked just along the corridor from them in London). Not only is it a vital source of impartial news on Myanmar and the outside world to many people in the country. It also has some extremely good Burmese journalists helping report Myanmar to the rest of us. So reports that the service is under threat as the British Foreign office ponders cutbacks are alarming. As The Guardian has argued, the Burmese service should be one of the last to go.
THE communiqué that emerges from the US-ASEAN summit on September 24th will make interesting reading. The summit, a lunch between Barack Obama and leaders of the Association of South-East Asian Nations, is being held on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly.
It marks the Obama administration’s continued effort to “re-engage” with a part of the world that felt neglected as America was distracted by its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In particular, it follows up the spirited intervention by Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, at ASEAN’s Regional Forum, in Hanoi in August.
This, like her remarks in Hanoi, is clearly directed at China. Similarly, China’s warning this week that “we firmly oppose any country having nothing to do with the South China Sea issue getting involved in the dispute,” clearly meant America.
Its intended audience, however, was in South-East Asia. The ASEAN leaders now find themselves in a bit of a bind. Many, feeling rather bullied by an assertive China, quietly encouraged America to involve itself. But if there is one thing they like less than feeling neglected by America, it is being harangued by China.
In Singapore’s Straits Times, Barry Wain has reported that China’s robust reaction has “had the desired response” in ASEAN. China in any event prefers not to deal with ASEAN as a block on the South China Sea: it likes to pick off rival claimants one by one. And the South-East Asian countries may feel even less inclined to antagonise China just now, for fear it would appear as a concerted attempt to test China's limits, just as its row with Japan over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands seems to be worsening.
On the other hand, toning down or removing the South China Sea references would look very weak, now that they are in the public domain. Still, ASEAN has over four decades of experience in taking the sting out of communiqués. Making the contentious bland is the essence of “the ASEAN way”.
Update: Discretion, as so often, turned out to be the better part of ASEAN's valour. The joint statement issued avoided the relatively tough wording of the earlier draft, and, indeed, any specific mention of the South China Sea at all. Rather it "reaffirmed the importance of regional peace and stability, maritime security, unimpeded commerce, and freedom of navigation, in accordance with relevant universally agreed principles of international law." Following Japan’s capitulation over the incident in the Senkaku/Diaoyu island, all this added up to a very satisfactory couple of days at the office for China’s assertive diplomats.
THE world’s media got quite excited at the prospect of a full conference of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, expected early this month. Since this was the first such conference for thirty years, and the previous one saw Kim Il Sung (the Great Leader) install his son Kim Jong Il (the Dear Leader) as his obvious successor, this seemed a big deal.
It was widely expected that the third-generation mantle would pass to Kim Jong Un (the Loss Leader?), perhaps with a period of regency under his uncle, Chang Sung Taek. But, as so often in North Korea, the rest is silence. As far as is known, the conference has not happened. The press, finding it hard to write about a non-event, has largely turned its attention elsewhere.
Andrei Lankov, however, of Kookmin University in Seoul, doyen of Pyongyangologists, finds the non-conference perhaps more interesting than the real thing. It is, he points out, very odd. The North Korean media, which only make up what they are told to, were quite specific that the meeting would be held in the first ten days of September. That has passed without a conference, which is still, say the regime’s mouthpieces, “drawing near”.
Something seems to have gone awry. Perhaps Kim Jong Il, said to have suffered a stroke two years back, is in bad health. Perhaps the elite are bridling at the imposition of his 27-year-old son. Perhaps one of the Kims had better things to do. Perhaps the elder one simply decided on a delay. “Such sudden changes of mind,” notes Mr Lankov, “are not unexpected when we deal with a stroke patient.” But, as he goes on: “this particular patient seemingly has a complete control over the nuclear-powered nation of 24m.”
Of course, most likely the conference will convene in a day or two, with all the pomp one would expect and no sign of anything amiss. We might never find out why the North Korean political system had such a hiccup. If it is delayed any longer, Mr Lankov would be far from the only Korea-watcher getting excited.
Update: Now that the North Korean media have at last reported on the devastating floods and landslides wrought by a typhoon earlier this month, they also seem a possible cause of the delay. With roads and railways damaged, delegates may simply not be able to get to Pyongyang. Or the scale of the disaster, in which dozens have been killed and tens of thousands of homes destroyed, may have diverted North Korea's leaders to the relief effort. That last explanation, however, would suggest a greater concern with the public's welfare than the regime normally displays.
EVERY date to have inspired hope that the cycle of protest in the Kashmir valley might be about to end has instead proved to mark another intensification in the unrest. It was hoped that by the beginning of Ramadan, families would have had enough of living in a state of siege. Since the protests began in June life in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has been disrupted most days by hartals, or strikes, called by anti-Indian separatists and by government-imposed curfews that have shut shops, schools and public buildings. But the movement kept going unabated through the fasting month. Then optimists looked to the Eid festival at the end of Ramadan as a potential turning-point.
So it has proved, but only for the worse. In the bloodiest encounters since the stone-throwing protests against Indian rule began, at least 19 people have been killed. They included a policeman, run over by a lorry, the first member of the security forces to have died in the unrest. About 90 Kashmiris, some of them very young, have been killed.
In a big protest march, some government buildings were set ablaze. The police have accused a separatist leader, Umar Farooq, the Mirwaiz, or hereditary spiritual leader of the valley’s Sunni Muslims, of inciting the arson and violence. The Mirwaiz, who is known as a moderate, has denied it, and blamed Indian agents provocateurs. His harder-line rival Syed Shah Geelani, now 81, has come to his defence. One feature of the recent protests is the unity they have forged between the many frequently feuding anti-India factions in the valley.
The latest protests have two new, linked elements. The first is that they were partly prompted by outside events. Up to now, the Kashmiri protests have been self-perpetuating—every time a clash led to a death, it would provoke a new protest. This time one factor was a report of the desecration of the Koran in America. India has banned broadcasts from the Iranian television station that spread the story.
The second is the sectarian cast to some of the violence. A Christian-run school was attacked; and a crowd was stopped from attacking a church. Many Kashmiris pride themselves on the syncretic generosity of the valley’s Sufi-influenced Islam. But in recent years less tolerant strains of the religion have made ground.
India’s government still seems at a loss as to how to respond. The local chief minister, Omar Abdullah, has appealed for the lifting of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, a self-explanatory, draconian and much-detested piece of legislation in force in 14 of J&K’s 22 districts, from four districts in the valley. The army, however, is adamantly opposed to this, as is the main federal opposition party, the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. A cabinet security meeting ducked making a decision, so the law remains in effect.
This will fuel the resentment of many Kashmiris who see the 500,000 or more Indian troops in Kashmir as a force to be feared rather than trusted. Unverified video footage apparently showing detained Kashmiris being stripped and humiliated has been removed from YouTube and other sites. But, as Amnesty International has pointed out, it will do little for India’s image in Kashmir that its police seem more interested in finding who was guilty of uploading the footage than in investigating its authenticity and contemplating action against the paramilitaries apparently involved.
EVEN some Western liberals, including fierce critics of the lack of democracy in China, concede that dictatorial rule might have some beneficial side-effects. Take, for example, the challenge of tackling human-induced climate change. Whereas Western governments get bogged down in the morass where present-day voters are asked to make sacrifices now for the sake of voters to come, China, the argument goes, can just issue an edict. But even in China, it is not that easy.
There was some grudging admiration for the drastic measures in place in, for example, Anping county in the northern province of Hebei, around Beijing. As part of China’s national target of cutting energy intensity (the amount of energy used per unit of GDP) by 20% in the five-year period ending this year, Anping had wanted to cut its electricity consumption by 6.6% in 2010 from the 2009 level. The first half of this year, however, yielded a cut of less than 1%.
So the local government got tough. It divided the county’s 98 wiring systems into three groups and, from August 27th, turned them off in turn. People had to put up with not just a short black-out—but a 22-hour period, from 9pm to 7pm the next day, without electricity.
Not surprisingly, businesses, unable to complete orders they had taken, and residents, emptying their fridges of rotten food, were furious. And their cries of rage were heard. The central and provincial governments have told local authorities to restore power supplies.
Some restrictions remain in place: supplies to illegal energy-intensive and high-polluting factories are still to be cut. This is in keeping with the nationwide drive, which has seen many factories across the country closed for at least part of the time.
Steel production has been affected. Reuters quotes official estimates that output could fall by 7m tonnes in September. An analyst quoted by the Wall Street Journal, however, points out that this may have motives other than cutting carbon emissions and energy intensity. It might be intended to help the consolidation of China's fragmented steel industry, which would strengthen the country's bargaining position with the big iron-ore producers.
Even so, China does seem to be taking its energy-intensity target extremely seriously, which must be welcomed. Nor is it bad news that a local government cannot get away with high-handed collective punishment of its power-guzzling citizens. It too will have to enter the morass, and try to persuade people to change their behaviour.
AT THE end of my column of this week, on the prospects of China's economic growth sustaining the whole region's on its own, I promised to show some of my work. The following were a few of that piece's most useful sources; all are available online. My thanks to the authors.
AN ODD row has broken out over the failed attempt of an Indian general, B. S. Jaswal, who heads the army’s Northern Command, to visit China. General Jaswal was refused a visa, apparently because of his work in Kashmir.
This is not entirely surprising. China has been irritating India for about a year now with its unwillingness to issue normal visas to residents of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K).
One interpretation of its rejection of General Jaswal is that it is engaged in simple tit-for-tat diplomacy, following India’s refusal to allow a Chinese diplomat to visit its troubled north-eastern state of Manipur to give a talk.
There is probably more to it than that, however. For B. Raman, a former head of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India's main spy agency, China’s policy is consistent with a change in its stance on Indian-held Kashmir: “it has diluted its past acceptance ofJ&K as a de facto part of India.”
As Mr Raman notes, this must delight Pakistan, which will see it as tacit support for its claim to all of Kashmir. He points out it might also be seen as a way of bolstering China’s position in possible future negotiations over Indian-claimed territory it now occupies.
It will also have noticed and been concerned by China’s increased activity in Pakistan's “Northern Areas” (which were recently renamed as Gilgit-Baltistan), the north-western part of the old J&K kingdom. Chinese soldiers there are working on road, railway and other infrastructure projects. This will provide a fast route into western China from the port it is building at Gwadar, on Pakistan's shore of the Arabian Sea.
According to Selig Harrison, an American analyst, writing in the New York Times, the Chinese influence is greater than had been known and Pakistan “is handing over de facto control” of Gilgit-Baltistan, which is suffering a simmering revolt against Pakistani rule. He says between 7,000 and 11,000 Chinese troops are there.
Curiously, Mr Harrison equates this “collusion” by Pakistan with China with the support of parts of its establishment for the Taliban, as evidence it is not an American ally. Surely, to be “with” America, a country doesn’t yet have to be “against” China?