Sea of tomorrow?

On a visit to Australia in the 1980s, the Prime Minister told Tip O’Neill (the Speaker of the House during Ronald Reagan’s presidency), that “…the Mediterranean was the sea of the past, the Atlantic, the sea of the present and the Pacific the sea of tomorrow.”

The prophecy has come true. Pacific Ocean IS the prominent waterway where commercial sea-lanes traverse between the world’s factory, China, and the world’s mall, America.

However, as the bipolar world of the past (US and USSR) has led to the unipolar world (US) presently, a new world-order is taking place in the 21st century. It will be a multipolar world, with competing interests of the US, Russia, China, India and maybe even other countries like Brazil and South Africa.

Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state, in a review of a new book by Robert D. Kaplan, Monsoon, says “…the twenty-first-century balance of power in the world will rest, more than anywhere else, on the fortunes of China, India, and the United States in the Indian Ocean.

Mr. Kaplan argues that  “Like the monsoon itself, a cyclical weather system that is both destructive and essential for growth and prosperity, the rise of these countries (including India, Pakistan, China, Indonesia, Burma, Oman, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Tanzania) represents a shift in the global balance that cannot be ignored. The Indian Ocean area will be the true nexus of world power and conflict in the coming years. It is here that the fight for democracy, energy independence, and religious freedom will be lost or won, and it is here that American foreign policy must concentrate if America is to remain dominant in an ever-changing world.

On Fareed Zakaria GPS (aired on 29 August, 2010), Mr. Kaplan summarizes his recent article in Foreign Affairs. The following passages are my reactions mixed in with Mr. Kaplan’s data and analysis:

China is blessed with temperate climate and a vast geography, extending to central Asia westwards, but also has a fifth of humanity to feed and enrich. What has gone unnoticed in the past decade is the rise of China as a seapower. It is coming in competition with India, which is also a rising seapower. China has started to build warm-water ports in Burma, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. This is seen by many to encircle India in a ‘string of pearls‘ around India. The sea-lanes from the Persian Gulf to China cross the Indian Ocean.

A rising Chinese naval power will bump against the present occupant to its east, the US, which has troop presence in Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. The US also has presence in the Oceania (Guam, Palau, American Samoa, etc.) which will check Chinese expansion into the Pacific. So, China will aim to extend its influence in the Indian Ocean. Also, the rivalry between China and India, commanding the second and third largest global economies by 2025, will spill into the Indian Ocean.

While we cannot ignore China, and should encourage its cooperation, we must also encourage like minded countries lke Japan and India build their naval powers.

Obama has already shown that he understands this equations; Secretary of State Clinton’s first overseas trip was to Indonesia.

This will be the ‘Great Game’ of the 21st century, much like the one between the British and the Russian Empires in the 19th.

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Whither Kashmir?

It is interesting to read M.J. Akbar’s column to realize that “Pakistan pre-empted a peaceful settlement in 1948 by organizing an invasion thinly disguised as an “uprising”, in October 1947″.

This was because “A little after Partition [in August 1947], Nehru wrote to Mountbatten that the best time for discussions on the future of Kashmir would be after the spring thaw of 1948 since his government was overburdened by the bitter aftermath of riots and resettlement.”

“If Pakistan had not sought to seize Kashmir through war, the Kashmir problem would have been resolved across a table in 1948”, says Mr. Akbar. He concludes that “The war that Pakistan began is a recipe for disaster; the negotiations that Nehru and Mountbatten wanted are still the only option”.

When will we leave Afghanistan?

“…the US army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020.” So says the top US solider in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Babaker Zerbari. He added that the planned withdrawal will create a “problem” and increase instability in Iraq. The US government plans to withdraw its combat troops by the end of August 2010, and to remove all troops by the end of 2011.

This has interesting implications for the US strategy in Afghanistan, where president Obama wants to start troop withdrawal starting July 2011. A year before that deadline, things in the AfPak region are far from stable, unlike in Iraq; this means a slower withdrawal.

Saddam Hussein, undoubtedly, was evil. Nevertheless, Iraq has been a progressive and secular society. It was the only country in the middle-east where one could put up a Christmas tree, and women were not necessitated to don a coverall, not drive or not go to work. While the country was predominantly Muslim, there was a sense of national identity, except for some dissension in the northern province of Kurdistan. Before the US invasion, Iraq had a million-man military, one of the largest in the world at that time.

In contrast, Afghanistan has never really been one nation. Until 1973, when a bloodless coup removed the king Zahir Shah, it was a monarchy. However, this Afghani kingdom only came to be in 1919. Before that it was either a transit for invaders to cross over to India, or was a part of an empire, either Indian or Iranian. During much of the 19th century it was a part of the ‘Great Game‘ between Britain and Russia, which continued even after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, ending when they became allies in WWII.

Without a federal authority, there have been several centers of power around the country throughout Afghanistan’s history; all politics is really local here. The populace is used to continual wars as fortunes have shifted. To complicate matters further, there are the majority (about two-thirds) Pashtuns in the east and south, while the minorities of Uzbeks are in the north and those with Persian heritage occupy the west. And they don’t like each other.

When the Soviets invaded, they had almost as much troops (100,000) as we have now (110,000) and were helped by an equal number of Afghan forces. They stayed there about the same time that we have been (almost 10 years), and when they left in 1989, the whole country was in tatters, without any central governance. Today, the situation is no better than it was two decades ago.

In other words, Afghanistan does not have any central command and control, no feeling of national allegiance and no viable armed forces. It does not have the structure or institutions to become a Westphalian nation-state.

If it will take 10 years for us to leave Iraq in toto, we will be in Afghanistan for a long, long time. Gen. David Petraeus, the US commander in Afghanistan, has started to hedge on that deadline, and VP Biden says US troop withdrawal could be limited. Even president Obama stated that “We didn’t say we’d be switching off the lights and closing the door behind us,” in July 2011!

Medical Tourism?

The rising cost of healthcare in the US has led many an employer to pursue the option of ‘medical tourism‘.

It’s not just countries like Australia, but even developing countries like India are attracting a lot of patients to have everything from eye and dental care, to cosmetic and open-heart surgery. These patients are admitted to top hospitals in major metropolitan areas around the country that use cutting-edge technologies to provide world-class care. Not only are they cheaper by 50%-80% – including all costs: airfare, medical bills and lodging, patients are treated like royalty in luxurious accommodations.

The Internet is teeming with sites to inform you and/or have your business. Googling ‘medical tourism gets about 11 million results; ‘medical tourism in India‘ over a million. To sweeten the pot, you can apply some of your savings to go sightseeing; hundreds of ‘medical-tourist agencies‘ offer thousands of packages from which to choose.

However, recent reports of a drug resistant ‘superbug’ (NDM-1) spreading in British hospitals from patients treated abroad have emerged. Three US cases of NDM-1 have been identified between January and July, according to the Wall Street Journal. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that patients received recent medical care in India.

Injustice?

8 former executives guilty in ’84 Bhopal chemical leak: Slow are the wheels of justice, in India. So what is the government of India to make sure that justice is faster next time than it was for the victims of the worst industrial accident in the history of the planet at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal?

A panel starts work on a nuclear liability bill! This bill caps the extent of damages of the nuclear plant supplier and/or operator to a measly 500 corore rupees ($100 million) per incident (see update 3). If this was the law in 1984, the 500,000 victims exposed would have received $200 per person, and this is not counting people that died, estimates of which vary from 15 to 30,000. If you want to know more about this disaster, one of the best reads is Five Past Midnight in Bhopal.

Even $100 million is far less less than the US government has spent in bailing out any one of the corporations that landed us in the biggest finacial crisis since the Great Depression. But why is it doing so?

According to The Hindu, “…strengthening the Bill in favour of potential victims is likely to anger the U.S. government and American suppliers, who have made no bones about their need to be protected from ‘Bhopal type litigation’ in event of a nuclear accident.”

Hmm. I’m sure BP would want the US Congress to pass a similar legislation!

UPDATE 3: I have found out that the similar limits in the US are $75 million. House Speaker Pelosi wants to change that to unlimited amount for oil spills, while the Senate wants to increase that limit to $10 billion.

UPDATE 2: The guilty have been sentenced to 2 years in jail!

UPDATE 1: An International Herald-Tribune op-ed contributor remembers Bhopal and wonders “How many people in the West today want to compare the compensation citizens of India received for loss of life and health with the compensation that is likely to come from BP’s oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico?”

Under pressure from Mr. Obama, BP has decided to escrow $20 billion to pay for Gulf oil spill victims!

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder?

Pakistanis have been suggesting that the US should talk to the Taliban, otherwise the US strategy will fail, and Mr. Obama seems to agree. The Defense Secrataty, Mr. Gates, believes that you cannot say that one Taliban is good, and the other not good, but agrees with his boss that there is a need to talk to some Taliban commanders.

Pakistan has nurtured the Afghan Taliban since its inception, and in fact the Pakistani military’s secret service, the ISI, created it and helped it take over Afghanistan as a ‘strategic depth’ against India. Although tables turned after 9/11, the Government of Pakistan admits it is reaching out to them at all levels. It is the Pakistani Taliban that Pakistanis want to root out, because they are causing mayhem within their borders; they are the ‘bad’ Taliban, according to them.

I think talking to any Taliban would be a bad idea, and would only foster more terrorism. On the other hand, the US should encourage other countries in the region, like India – which has sunk $1.2 billion so far, to continue to assist in building Afghani infrastructure. After all, Afghanistan needs all the help it can get, especially now that we know that it has over $1 trillion worth of untapped natural reserves.


India shining?

India is enjoying “A strong, well balanced recovery” according to The Economist: Let’s be cautiously optimistic; India has a long way to go. With a deplorable law and order situation, ethnic strife, domestic and trans-border terrorism and a need to bring equal opportunity, prosperity and security to all its citizens, including minorities, India has a lot on its plate.

Certainly, comparisons with China will be drawn, although many forget that it started market reforms two decades ahead of India, despite being a coummunist country with a totally centrally-planned economy – which in itself is remarkable.

Regardless, it is a time for India to toast itself, as she cautiously plods ahead. It will be wise for India to remember what Lord Krishna said in the Bhagwat Gita about walking toward’s ones goal: Just look at the horizon and not below; the small pebbles will distract you.