A New Great Game in the Asia-Pacific

CounterPunchApril 30, 2012 

India tested its first inter-continental ballistic missile, named Agni-V, this month and joined the select group of nations possessing both nuclear weapons and a delivery system capable of hitting targets across continents. Only a few days before, nuclear capable North Korea had test fired a rocket, supposedly to place a satellite in the orbit, but it failed.

Within days, India’s long-time adversary, Pakistan, tested a more advance version of its Shaheen-1 missile. Named Shaheen-1A, it is capable of hitting targets between 2000 and 3000 miles––a substantially upgraded intermediate-range ballistic missile. Before the latest launch, Pakistan’s longest-range missile, Shaheen II, was thought to have a range of less than 1500 miles.

The North Korean attempt brought strong condemnation from the United States and its allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. The Obama administration announced a ban on food aid to Communist North Korea, an ally of China. Pyongyang immediately said that it was no longer bound by the agreement to refrain from its nuclear program. The expectation in Washington is that North Korea will now conduct another rocket or even a nuclear test, its third since October 2006.

Reaction to India’s first ICBM test was different from that after North Korea’s unsuccessful rocket launch. The Indian missile is not something China can ignore. The Chinese are ahead of the Indians in the nuclear and space race by a decisive margin. Beijing has the capability of hitting targets anywhere in the world. It has had the atomic bomb since 1964 and the hydrogen bomb since 1967. It tested its first inter-continental ballistic missile four years later.

Today, China’s Dong Feng-41 missile has a range almost three times greater than the 3500 mile range of India’s latest missile. In all important respects, India is still in the Second Division of the nuclear league. Delhi hopes that further tests of Agni-V will enable the country to implement its nuclear deterrence in two years. Once the latest missiles are in operation, they will launch India into the First Division.

Notwithstanding the celebratory mood in India over the success of its missile test, the recent overall trend will be seen as an intensification of the arms race in the Asia-Pacific region. Whereas the North Korean nuclear and missile programs have caused upset in South Korea, Japan and Washington, India’s Agni-V is unwelcome to China and Pakistan. It is hardly surprising that the Chinese response was filled with warning and ridicule.

Pointing at its superior firepower, the Chinese media called Agni-V a “political missile” and mocked it as being “dwarf.” Beijing warned that “India should not overestimate its strength.” And the Global Times accused “vested interests” of promoting an arms race between neighbors.

The United States reacted with an unusual degree of calm and understanding on India’s entry into the league of nations possessing inter-continental ballistic missiles. President Obama had recently proclaimed Asia-Pacific as the new focus of American strategy, indicating it to be a logical necessity to depart from the grinding wars of the Bush administration and counter China and North Korea in the future. Reacting to the Agni-V’s launch, a State Department spokesman called for “restrain” and, at the same time, praised India’s solid “non-proliferation record.”

With China continuing to build its naval and air presence in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, and others striving to stay in the game, the race for influence among Asian powers is a reality. The West, led by the United States, eyes India as its long-term ally with a view to countering China. As the American administration continues its attempts to lure India into an ever closer alliance, Delhi is not wholly willing to oblige. Washington’s offer to help India develop a “missile shield” is one significant issue between them. Then there are diverging views on relations with Iran causing tension between Delhi and Washington.

The arena of the new Great Game is Asia-Pacific. The race is complicated in a unipolar world, but the trend is clear. India’s intention to close the gap with China is welcomed by the West in general and the United States in particular. Pakistan is determined to stay close to India’s military might whereas China will want to maintain its supremacy.

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What’s Left?

International Policy Digest

The public suicide of 77-year-old pharmacist Demitris Christoulas a short distance from the parliament building in Athens and the outpouring of grief and anger reveal the trauma and desperation in Greek society in the midst of an economic crisis. In a handwritten note before he shot himself in the head, Christoulas complained that the government had made it impossible for him to survive on the pension he had paid into for 35 years. The note on his body said, “I find no other solution than a dignified end before I start searching through the trash for food.”

To get a rescue package for its economy and to keep its place in the euro zone, the Greek government has slashed wages and retirement pensions by as much as 25 percent. With the unemployment rate exceeding 20 percent, Greece faces a national ordeal. Last year, the government admitted that suicides had risen by 40 percent over the previous two years.

A day before Christoulas ended his life, an Italian woman of 78 in Sicily had jumped from the balcony of her third-floor apartment. Her monthly pension had been cut from 800 to 600 euros and she could take no more. Her son said, “The government is making us all poor, apart from the wealthy, who they don’t touch, in contrast with us workers and small businessmen who are struggling with heavy debts.”

A week before, a businessman tried to commit suicide by setting himself alight outside a tax office. He had lost his appeal against a claim of unpaid tax. And a 27-year-old construction worker of Moroccan descent set himself on fire because he had not been paid wages for four months.

Thus an alarming trend, first seen among India’s debt-ridden farmers in the 1990s, has spread to the European Union, where citizens have begun to end their lives because of crushing poverty and utter hopelessness. There is a feeling that rich will become richer at the expense of poor, that governments will either side with the wealthy, or be impotent in the face of powerful institutions determined to force economic reengineering on nations that will bring the greatest pain to the greatest number of people.

The age-old social contract between the state and its citizens is in an unprecedented crisis. Philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau implied in his eighteenth-century work A Discourse On Inequality that natural inequality, meaning disparity between human strength and weakness, is established by nature. But moral inequality is based on a kind of convention that is established, or at least authorized, by the consent of men. Today, the system of privileges, which some enjoy to the prejudice of others, is fighting for legitimacy. Those who are privileged are “more rich, more honored, more powerful and in a position to extract obedience.”

Human evolution has been an epic struggle against moral inequality, which inevitably leads to accumulation of wealth and power and abuse of both. That monumental struggle is at a crucial juncture. On one end are forces of unrestrained capitalism that have been in the ascendancy since the collapse of communism. On the other, expressions of mass opposition in the form of the Arab awakening and the occupy movements in the American and European continents.

People’s movements are usurped by the very forces they were supposed to fight. The prospect looks more bleak and bloody. To pessimists, the contest between the corporate interests, international institutions and ruling elites on one hand and the citizens on the other is increasingly one-sided.

The feeling of disenfranchisement has spread to the north. Modern capitalism has created conditions not unlike those found under communism, which allowed party bosses and bureaucrats to control the population. Democratic centralism, sanctified by Lenin as “freedom for discussion, unity of action” at the Tenth Party Congress in 1933 may look obsolete a quarter century after Soviet communism collapsed. But corporate businesses and international financial institutions, working in harmony with politicians and other members of the ruling elites using state instruments, have gained unprecedented control over vast numbers of citizens today.

The pyramid of power is intact. Social democrats once provided an alternative with a conscience to the extreme rightwing monetarism. But they have all but surrendered to the neo-capitalist theory based only on growth and the idea that the one and only social responsibility of business is to make profit. Political labels of Left and Right have become meaningless. And autocratic instincts of capitalism of today mirror those of communism of the days gone by.

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Sarkozy’s France: The Boomerang Effect

CounterPunch

Toulouse, Europe’s aerospace hub in the southwest of France, has hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. A twenty-three-year-old French citizen of Algerian origin, Mohamed Merah, went on a shooting spree last month, killing seven people and terrorizing a million residents for ten days before a police sniper’s bullet ended his life. Among his victims were three unarmed soldiers, a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school. According to prosecutors privy to negotiations with Merah during the thirty-hour siege where he met his end, his only regret was “not having claimed more victims.” He reportedly said that he was proud of having “brought France to its knees.”

Mohamed Merah had many more years to live had it not been for his final act. Life was, however, not important to him. He claimed to have been motivated by the Palestinians’ plight, the presence of French troops in Afghanistan and the law banning the full veil in France.  These issues challenge the conscience of many people. But a young man depriving fellow citizens of life, and throwing away his own, cannot constitute a solution.

What is known about Merah’s short life does not suggest that he was particularly religious. He frequented bars and nightclubs in his home town. He had displayed other imperfections of a disturbed youth––petty crime, driving without license and fistfights. In this light, Merah’s assertion of belonging to al Qaeda is more likely to have been an exaggeration or empty boast than a serious claim to infamy. It has prompted some sections of the media to run with speculation, without much evidence, that Merah was affiliated to al Qaeda and the Taliban. French police are investigating whether he visited Afghanistan, but indications of any ideological twist are thin. For Mohamed Merah was not a devout Muslim.

We must mourn Merah’s victims and express sympathy for their relatives and friends whose lives have been shattered. It was a needless act of revenge on people whose only fault was to belong to the French armed forces, or to the Jewish community. Worse, his victims included children. Thus if it is right to condemn the recent massacre of innocent Afghans in Kandahar, then it is also right to condemn the killings in Toulouse. That children were among the victims in both places is particularly distressing and requires reflection on our part.

Like the context of Kandahar, there is a context of Toulouse. Kandahar is one of Afghanistan’s Pashtun-dominated provinces, the stronghold of Taliban-led resistance to foreign military forces, who regularly launch night raids in local residents’ homes to hunt for men described as Taliban, their militant supporters and sympathizers. The American soldier, St. Sgt. Robert Bales, charged with seventeen murders after the Kandahar massacre, was flown out to the United States for possible military trial that could take years. Mohamed Merah, born and raised in deprived immigrant neighborhoods in France, was condemned as the guilty killer, his life ended by a sniper’s bullet.

A country of just under sixty-five million people, France has a twenty percent immigrant population. Many came from French-speaking Africa, or were born and raised in France. Unemployment among them is high. Living conditions in immigrant neighborhoods are harsh. There are areas where petty crime is rampant, reinforced by economic failure. Merah’s crime cannot be condoned by these factors. But he was one of the many to have become disconnected from French society, where the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments are virulent. With one in seven French voters projected to support the far-right Front National in the first round of the coming presidential election, politicians have not hesitated to make an issue of the race.

Even President Nicholas Sarkozy, son of a Hungarian immigrant family, says there are too many foreigners in the country, and that he would reduce their numbers if he wins a second term. The September 11, 2001 attacks were compared to the Japanese air assault on Pearl Harbor during the Second World War. For Western politicians dressed up with ambition and agenda,  9/11 has become the benchmark for discussion on any militant act by a non-state group or individual.  Sarkozy is the latest to jump on the 9/11 bandwagon.

In the midst of deep economic and social problems, Sarkozy faces an uphill election battle against the Socialist candidate Francois Hollande. With support for the far-right running around fifteen percent, the real battle is for that vote in the second round after the Front National candidate, Marine Le Pen, has been eliminated in the first. In a frantic bid for that vote, Sarkozy’s campaign has been moving to the right, steadily and dangerously.

The immigrant population of France feels targeted by a series of new laws. A combination of coercive measures to force people of non-European origins to conform to the “French way of life,” socio-economic problems, lack of opportunities and perceived loss of identity is causing a boomerang effect in French society. And it is forcing young individuals from vulnerable communities to go on a luckless search for identity and causes which they do not fully comprehend. Mohamed Merah, too, was a victim of this phenomenon.

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