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AUKUS-Pocus for a new Cold War in Asia-Pacific?

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by Rajan Philips

No, this is not hocus-pocus, the old parody of liturgical transubstantiation. AUKUS is the awkward abbreviation of what Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison described as the “new enhanced trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.” Mr. Morrison was leading off the announcement of the partnership – joining by zoom from Australia, US President Joe Biden at the White House in Washington and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Downing Street in London. The announcement, separated by time zones, officially at 5:00 PM, Wednesday, September 15 in Washington (late evening in London and Thursday morning in Canberra), came as a surprise to practically everyone other than the three leaders and their officials who had been working seemingly secretly for nearly six months to create the new alliance.

Neighbours (Canada, New Zealand) and close allies (France, Germany, the whole EU and Japan) were notified only hours before the announcement. China was not mentioned at all in any of the opening statements but clearly China is the sole reason for the new global troika. China may not have had a clue and was duly outraged. But it was France’s fury that momentarily upstaged the announcement of the new partnership. It was double French fury – the fury of a friend scorned and for a contract reneged.

For at the heart of the new partnership is the supply of a nuclear-powered submarine fleet by the US to Australia, and the unilateral scuppering of Australia’s $40 – $60 billion contract to buy French diesel submarines. According to France, the French manufacturer had offered to switch to supplying (the easier) nuclear-powered submarines instead of (the cumbersome) diesel submarines, but there was no response from Australia. Until the announcement of the tri-lateral partnership and a new source for providing nuclear-powered submarine technology. The submarines are to be built in Adelaide, Australia, with technology and support provided primarily by the United States.

In an unprecedented move, France recalled its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra, an affront that the US did not risk suffering even under Trump. UK was spared, because France viewed the Breixiter as a minor player in the new Indo-Pacific region. Matters have cooled since, with President Biden speaking with French President Macron and France agreeing to return its Ambassador to Washington next week. Not so with Australia. Macron is still not taking calls from Morrison. Prime Minister Johnson, in Washington for the annual UN session, has playfully told France to “get a grip.” But that will not take away the undiplomatic sloppiness in the announcement of an initiative, which The Economist has called a ‘tectonic shift’ in geopolitics akin to such historic milestones as the Suez crisis (1956), Nixon’s visit to China (1972), and the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989).

Motivations

The motivations for the partnership are probably more parochial than what might be implied by its sweepingly consequential potentials. Of the three Anglo-musketeers, Australia probably was the keenest to pull this off. In recent decades, Australia has been trying to position itself quite comfortably on the fence with a policy of not choosing between the US and China. Australian governments have acknowledged that it was because of China that their continent was shielded from the 2008 global financial crisis. China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, and as a resource-based economy Australia has found an insatiable market in China.

Within the last five years, however, Australian leaders were becoming unsettled by China’s aggressive foreign policy, alleged political interferences, and maritime military expansions, as Xi Jinping gradually consolidated his power within China. In 2017, the Australian government banned foreign political donations, banned Huawei from 5G network initiatives, and blocked Chinese investments in many sectors. The last straw was Australia’s calling for an international inquiry into the origins of coronavirus in Wuhan. Beijing bullyingly hit back with import bans and increased tariffs, while China’s Ambassador in Canberra released a list of 14 Chinese grievances caused by Australia.

Australia is not the only country concerned with China’s maritime claims and intensions in the East and South China seas. There is already the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) group of four that includes Australia, United States, India and Japan, and Quad Plus with New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam added, to check China’s maritime claims and promote a “rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas.” Perhaps, Australia was looking for something more potent than Quad. The trilateral partnership idea is first said to have been mooted at the highest level when Prime Minister Morrison met Prime Minister Johnson and President Biden during the G7 gathering last June, in Cornwall, England, to which Australia was invited along with South Korea, India, and South Africa as observers.

Britain is a minor player in the AUKUS partnership. It is a major opportunity, however, for Prime Minister Johnson to project it, to his domestic audience, as a part of his government’s post-Brexit global reach for the UK. Few saw this coming in the US, and the currently embattled Biden Administration may have seen the AUKUS announcement as a timely diversion from the Afghan debacle. The partnership has been launched and announced primarily as executive action without prior involvement of the legislature in the three countries. Indeed, there is ‘opposition’ support for the partnership in all three countries. The US Republicans who raised hell over Obama’s Iran deal, have largely ignored the new AUKUS. They are more fixated on abortion and immigration. The two Labour opposition parties in Australia and the UK have generally fallen in line except for some voices of caution. There are of course concerns in Australia that the country may have permanently baked its future with the US. The most prominent critic of AUKUS in Australia seems to be Paul Keating, the 77-year old former Labour Prime Minister.

Reactions

Backlash to AUKUS has been mostly international, especially among Southeast Asian countries. Aside from France and Europe, and for entirely different reasons, Indonesia and Malaysia have expressed serious concerns over the new partnership. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has made himself unavailable to Prime Minister Morrison, who was forced to cancel his pre-planned trip to Jakarta after the diplomatic snub. ASEAN countries are committed by treaty to a nuclear weapon-free Southeast Asia. They are aware that China, the US, Britain and France have generally ignored their protocols in the South China Sea, and they are concerned about China’s building of military bases on islands with disputed claims. And they fear that the new AUKUS partnership and Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines will only aggravate rather than abate the current trends in the region.

It has also been reported that behind the official voices of protest and concern, there could be some support in ASEAN countries for the new AUKUS initiative insofar as it will “help keep China’s aggression in check,” in the long term. Notably, South Korea and Vietnam have been muted in their reactions to AUKUS. And so is Japan, while Taiwan has welcomed the new partnership. In realpolitik terms, any support in Asia for AUKUS will see it as restoring the balance of power in the South China Sea that has been “tilting too much in Beijing’s favour in the past decade.”

On Friday, September 23, the Prime Ministers of Japan and India had their first post-AUKUS meeting with President Biden and Prime Minister Morrison in Washington. That was also the first in-person meeting of the Quad group leaders. For their part, Japan and India would like to keep the possibilities of the Quad group active and alive, and it would be in the interest of both the US and Australia to keep India and Japan on its side. Indian reaction(s) to AUKUS are a study in calculated equanimity.

Friday’s editorial in The Hindu captures this ambivalence in measured tone. Ostensibly, India is neither for nor against AUKUS. A position, apparently, of strategic non-alignment. Specifically, India “does not see AUKUS as nuclear proliferation.” As well, for India, while AUKUS is a “security alliance,” security is not the Quad’s main focus. Quad’s possibilities are wide ranging and include, keeping “Indo-Pacific region free, open and inclusive,” and encouraging “maritime exercises, security and efforts in countering COVID-19, climate change, cooperating on critical technologies, and building resilient supply chains.” The editorial concludes that “With the sudden announcement of AUKUS, a worry for New Delhi is that the U.S. is now promoting a security partnership with its “Anglo-Saxon” treaty allies that it is excluded from, possibly upsetting the balance of power in the region, and setting off new tensions to India’s east, adding to the substantial turbulence in India’s west caused by the developments in Afghanistan.”

The proof of the AUKUS pudding will ultimately depend on how China chooses to eat it. It has already called AUKUS, and not unjustifiably, as a return to “cold war mentality.” Except, Xi’s China is not the old communist power of Mao, and any new cold war will not be predicated on ideological battle between capitalism and socialism. For now, the key takeaways from the botched announcement of an admittedly consequential partnership are twofold. First, it has upended the so-called Western alliance, isolated Europe and NATO, and created a new Anglo-Saxon club of three – excluding the two smaller eyes (Canada and New Zealand) of the original Five Eyes. Second, and more important, it has created a huge uncertainty over the immediate and long-term consequences for the relationship between China and the West, that will have equally uncertain implications for the rest of the world, in general, and Asia in particular.

Among South Asian countries size will matter. India is in a league of its own, Pakistan and Bangladesh will have their own calculations. Sri Lanka can be smart and stay clear of the submarine waves – the way New Zealand is doing. Already, New Zealand has declared its waters out of bounds for AUKUS submarines. Alternatively, Sri Lanka can go stupid, take sides and pay the price. The worst of all courses would be to try to play both sides with dishonesty and native cunning.



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Features

Why Small Farms will be the backbone of food security

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The ecological axiom that: ‘Energy flow through a system tends to organise and simplify that system’, is abundantly clear in agriculture. As farms moved from small interdependent units, bounded by fences and hedgerows, to large cropping fields to accommodate machine management, we lose the biodiversity that once existed on that landscape and the biomass that provided the Ecosystem Services. This sacrifice was rationalised through the invocation of economic profit. The economic ‘profit’ gained by subsidies on fossil fuel and uncontrolled extraction from the Global Commons. The ‘development’ of agriculture has become a race to control the commodity market. The farmer ceased to be a feature of the farm. In a telling statement, the farmers of Sri Lanka sent the following statement to the CGIAR in 1998 :

‘We, the farmers of Sri Lanka would like to further thank the CGIAR, for taking an interest in us. We believe that we speak for all of our brothers and sisters the world over when we identify ourselves as a community who are integrally tied to the success of ensuring global food security. In fact it is our community who have contributed to the possibility of food security in every country since mankind evolved from a hunter-gather existence. We have watched for many years, as the progression of experts, scientists and development agents passed through our communities with some or another facet of the modern scientific world. We confess that at the start we were unsophisticated in matters of the outside world and welcomed this input. We followed advice and we planted as we were instructed. The result was a loss of the varieties of seeds that we carried with us through history, often spanning three or more millennia. The result was the complete dependence of high input crops that robbed us of crop independence. In addition, we farmers producers of food, respected for our ability to feed populations, were turned into the poisoners of land and living things, including fellow human beings. The result in Sri Lanka is that we suffer from social and cultural dislocation and suffer the highest pesticide- related death toll on the planet. Was this the legacy that you the agricultural scientists wanted to bring to us ? We think not. We think that you had good motives and intentions, but left things in the hands of narrowly educated, insensitive people.’

The diverse farm had to yield to production monoculture, which was made possible through the burning of fossil fuels. Ironically the burning of fossil fuels is the major reason for the current destabilised climate and threat to agriculture. One consequence of climate change is the predicted rise in global temperatures. If ambient temperatures exceed 40 degrees , which has become the reality in many places even today, food production will be compromised. All the food we eat originates with plants and plants produce using photosynthesis. Photosynthesis, or the capture of solar energy by plants, is done with chlorophyll, the thing that makes plants green and chlorophyll begins to break down after 40 degrees. Landscapes whose summer temperatures go beyond this limit will have smaller and smaller crops as the temperatures increase. The only solution to this oncoming crisis, is to begin introducing trees at strategic points on the landscape.

Trees and all other forms of vegetation cool the environment around them through the transpiration process, which takes place in the leaves. The water absorbed by the roots is sent up to the leaves which release it as vapor, cooling the air around it. Measurements on trees done by research institutions worldwide, indicate that an average large tree produces the cooling equivalent of eight room sized air conditioners running for 10 hours, a cooling yield 0f 1,250,000 Bthu per day. Plantations of trees have been recoded to have daytime temperatures at least 3 degrees below the ambient. This is an important aspect of Ecosystem Services that needs to be considered for adaptive agriculture.

Small farms which produce food with low external energy and maintain high biomass and biodiversity, are the models of food production that can face the climate compromised future before us. Capital, resource and energy expensive agricultural systems could fail in a high temperature future and threaten global food security, we need options. One would be to encourage a consumption and distribution system that facilitates small farmers to enter the market. Another would be to realise the value of the ecosystem services of a farm and develop systems to measure and reward. We are all aware of the future before us. Now is not the time to stand blinking like a deer facing the headlights.

But placing trees in and around cropping areas becomes a problem in large cropping fields designed to accommodate machine management. The management of such trees and hedgerows requires needs that cannot be provided without human management. Agricultural landscapes will need management that will be adaptive to the changing climate. An example would be; small interdependent units bounded by fences and that increase biodiversity and the biomass while providing Ecosystem Services.

Investment in food security, should take climate change seriously. All new agricultural projects should address the heat thresholds of the planned crops. The Sri Lankan country statement at COP 21 stated that :

“We are aware that the optimum operating temperature of chlorophyll is at 37 deg C. In a warming world where temperatures will soar well above that, food production will be severely impacted.”

And that :

“We are aware that the critical Ecosystem services such as; production of Oxygen, sequestering of Carbon, water cycling and ambient cooling is carried out by the photosynthetic component of biomass. This is being lost at an exponential rate, due to the fact that these Ecosystem Services have not been valued, nor economically recognised.”

These statements cry out for the recognition of the role that small farms will have to play in the future. In a temperature compromised future, small farms with high standing biomass, through their cooler temperatures will continue to produce food in heat stressed periods. If such Ecosystem Services can be given a value, it will strengthen the economy of small farms and ensure local, sustainable food production into the future.

Small farms which produce food with low external energy and maintain high biomass and biodiversity, are the models of food production that can face the climate compromised future before us. Capital, resource and energy expensive agricultural systems could fail in a high temperature future and threaten global food security, we need options. One would be to encourage a consumption and distribution system that facilitates small farmers to enter the market. Another would be to realize the value of the ecosystem services of a farm and develop systems to measure and reward. We are all aware of the future before us. Now is not the time to stand blinking like a deer in sheadlights.

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Encouraging signs, indeed!

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Derek and Manilal

Local entertainers can now breathe a sigh of relief…as the showbiz scene is showing signs of improving

Yes, it’s good to see Manilal Perera, the legendary singer, and Derek Wikramanayake, teaming up, as a duo, to oblige music lovers…during this pandemic era.

They will be seen in action, every Friday, at the Irish Pub, and on Sundays at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby.

The Irish Pub scene will be from 7.00 pm onwards, while at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby, action will also be from 7.00 pm onwards.

On November 1st, they are scheduled to do the roof top (25th floor) of the Movenpik hotel, in Colpetty, and, thereafter, at the same venue, every Saturday evening.

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Constructive dialogue beyond international community

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by Jehan Perera

Even as the country appears to be getting embroiled in more and more conflict, internally, where dialogue has broken down or not taken place at all, there has been the appearance of success, internationally. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be leading a delegation this week to Scotland to attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Both the President, at the UN General Assembly in New York, and Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris, at the UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva seem to have made positive impacts on their audiences and, especially amongst the diplomatic community, with speeches that gave importance to national reconciliation, based on dialogue and international norms.

In a recent interview to the media Prof Peiris affirmed the value of dialogue in rebuilding international relations that have soured. He said, “The core message is that we believe in engagement at all times. There may be areas of disagreement from time to time. That is natural in bilateral relations, but our effort should always be to ascertain the areas of consensus and agreement. There are always areas where we could collaborate to the mutual advantage of both countries. And even if there are reservations with regard to particular methods, there are still abundant opportunities that are available for the enhancement of trade relations for investment opportunities, tourism, all of this. And I think this is succeeding because we are establishing a rapport and there is reciprocity. Countries are reaching out to us.”

Prof Peiris also said that upon his return from London, the President would engage in talks locally with opposition parties, the TNA and NGOs. He spoke positively about this dialogue, saying “The NGOs can certainly make a contribution. We like to benefit from their ideas. We will speak to opposition political parties. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is going to meet the Tamil National Alliance on his return from COP26, which we will attend at the invitation of the British Prime Minister. So be it the NGO community or the foreign diaspora or the parliamentary opposition in Sri Lanka. We want to engage with all of them and that is very much the way forward”

INTERNAL FRAGMENTATION

The concept of a whole-of-government approach is indicative of a more cohesive approach to governance by government ministries, the public administration and state apparatus in general to deal with problems. It suggests that the government should not be acting in one way with the international community and another way with the national community when it seeks to resolve problems. It is consistency that builds trust and the international community will trust the government to the extent that the national community trusts it. Dialogue may slow down decision making at a time when the country is facing major problems and is in a hurry to overcome them. However, the failure to engage in dialogue can cause further delays due to misunderstanding and a refusal to cooperate by those who are being sidelined.

There are signs of fragmentation within the government as a result of failure to dialogue within it. A senior minister, Susil Premajayantha, has been openly critical of the ongoing constitutional reform process. He has compared it to the past process undertaken by the previous government in which there was consultations at multiple levels. There is a need to change the present constitutional framework which is overly centralised and unsuitable to a multi ethnic, multi religious and plural society. More than four decades have passed since the present constitution was enacted. But the two major attempts that were made in the period 1997-2000 and again in 2016-2019 failed.

President Rajapaksa, who has confidence in his ability to stick to his goals despite all obstacles, has announced that a new constitution will be in place next year. The President is well situated to obtain success in his endeavours but he needs to be take the rest of his government along with him. Apart from being determined to achieve his goals, the President has won the trust of most people, and continues to have it, though it is getting eroded by the multiple problems that are facing the country and not seeing a resolution. The teachers’ strike, which is affecting hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, is now in its fourth month, with no sign of resolution. The crisis over the halting of the import of chemical fertiliser is undermining the position of farmers and consumers at the present time.

EARLY WARNING

An immediate cause for the complaints against the government is the lack of dialogue and consultation on all the burning issues that confront the country. This problem is accentuated by the appointment of persons with military experience to decision-making positions. The ethos of the military is to take decisions fast and to issue orders which have to be carried out by subordinates. The President’s early assertion that his spoken words should be taken as written circulars reflects this ethos. However, democratic governance is about getting the views of the people who are not subordinates but equals. When Minister Premajayantha lamented that he did not know about the direction of constitutional change, he was not alone as neither does the general public or academicians which is evidenced by the complete absence of discussion on the subject in the mass media.

The past two attempts at constitutional reform focused on the resolution of the ethnic conflict and assuaging the discontent of the ethnic and religious minorities. The constitutional change of 1997-2000 was for the purpose of providing a political solution that could end the war. The constitutional change of 2016-19 was to ensure that a war should not happen again. Constitutional reform is important to people as they believe that it will impact on how they are governed, their place within society and their equality as citizens. The ethnic and religious minorities will tend to prefer decentralised government as it will give them more power in those parts of the country in which they are predominant. On the other hand, that very fact can cause apprehension in the minds of the ethnic and religious majority that their place in the country will be undermined.

Unless the general public is brought aboard on the issue of constitutional change, it is unlikely they will support it. We all need to know what the main purpose of the proposed constitutional reform is. If the confidence of the different ethnic and religious communities is not obtained, the political support for constitutional change will also not be forthcoming as politicians tend to stand for causes that win them votes. Minister Premajayantha has usefully lit an early warning light when he said that politicians are not like lamp posts to agree to anything that the government puts before them. Even though the government has a 2/3 majority, this cannot be taken for granted. There needs to be buy in for constitutional reform from elected politicians and the general public, both from the majority community and minorities, if President Rajapaksa is to succeed where previous leaders failed.

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