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Pompeo’s Visit and America’s Pandemic Election

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by Rajan Philips

No one in America would have noticed their roving Secretary of State taking off on an official visit to Asia during the last week of this year’s presidential election campaign. For that matter, even in Asia far more people are following the US election than paying attention to Mike Pompeo’s visit to their countries. In India especially, there is likely to be a very keen interest in the current US election if only because Kamala Harris, the Democratic candidate for Vice President, is the American born daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father. Mr. Pompeo of course belongs to the Republican Party. Not merely is he not a formally apolitical diplomat, he belongs to the right wing faction of the Republican Party – the infamous Tea Party faction. A former Congressman, Pompeo has future presidential ambitions and was strongly encouraged by the Republican Party to run for the Senate seat in Kansas this year. He decided not to. So, what is he doing now visiting India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Indonesia? Especially India, with Defence Secretary Mark Esper, on a so called ‘2+2 dialogue’ visit – diplomatese for bilateral meetings between the External Affairs and Defence Ministers of two countries?

 

Did either Prime Minister Modi or President Rajapaksa ask Secretary Pompeo, “You think Trump will win?” The way Boris Yeltsin is said to have asked Bill Clinton as they shook hands on the steps of the White House, “You think OJ is innocent?” This is according to CNN’s Larry King, in 1995, during the OJ Simpson trial that transformed the Atlanta (Georgia) based CNN into a global gossip machine. The November 3 presidential election is being described as hugely consequential, and the results will be consequential for Pompeo himself. There is not much certainty that if Trump wins he will keep Pompeo as Secretary, and he will certainly be out if Trump were to lose. Three times out of four the chances are that Mr. Pompeo may not remain as Secretary after the January inauguration of either the incumbent Trump, or challenger Joe Biden.

 

A Trump second term will ensure the continuity of unpredictable chaos in US foreign policy. A Biden victory, on the other hand, will likely restore it to the pre-Trump era, perhaps more in tone and style than in substance. Far reaching changes under a Biden presidency are likely to be mostly on the domestic front, at least in the short term. Reversing the Trump legacy in global affairs will take time. There will not be much of a reversal in substance, in America’s policy towards China and Asia.

 

If there is a pattern to Trump’s foreign policy, there are also about five aspects to it. First, the repudiation of everything that Obama did; to wit, the Paris Climate Accord, and the Iran Nuclear Deal. Second, Trump’s rhetoric of making America great again, a bigoted and racist version of the old unilateralism. Third, the straining of America’s ties with its traditional western allies all of which are constitutional democracies given to disciplined and institutionalized decision making in internal and external affairs. Trump’s bullying and browbeating of NATO, its member countries, and leaders are in this category. Fourth, making new connections with regions and governments which are more autocratic and with whom agreements can be reached through personalized transactions without little or no institutional engagements. Trump’s personal admiration for Putin, his “good feelings” for Erdogan and Duterte, the mutual-admiration diplomacy with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and the recent agreements involving Israel, the small Gulf States and Sudan under American auspices, are examples of Trump’s global initiatives. It is also well within his presidential pale to look for business opportunities for the Trump enterprise in the external deals he makes for America.

 

India, China, and America

 

The fifth and final aspect of Trump’s foreign policy involving China draws on all of the above and ratchets them up into the uniquely Trumpian tariff tantrums. Nonetheless, there is considerable consensus within America and the western hemisphere – about being tough on China. There is also a quiet and begrudging admission in the West and in China’s officialdom that Trump’s impulsive tactics have been effective. The difference under a Biden Administration would be in taking a multilateral approach towards the Asian power unlike the personalized style and unilateral thrust that Trump has been wielding. The rest of Asia is caught in the middle, with the difference that East Asian countries are more directly implicated than South Asian countries.

India, unmoored from its old Cold War, Soviet era alliances that excluded the US, is now central to the US response to the rising Chinese challenge in Asia. In addition, the Modi government and Trump Administration have much common ideologically, and the recent border skirmishes between India and China have given the US a reason to take India’s side and protest against China. Secretary Pompeo did just that quite vehemently on this visit. The bilateral meetings generated quite a collection of agreements, including the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on geospatial cooperation (BECA). Indian officials are pleased with the visit of the two powerful US Secretaries a week ahead of the presidential election to sign the BECA. They viewed it as a “demonstration to the world at large” of the importance that the U.S. attaches to India.

From New Delhi Pompeo shuttled to Colombo to “underscore the commitment of the United States to a partnership with a strong, sovereign Sri Lanka and to advance our common goals for a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” Once in Colombo, Secretary Pompeo added: “That’s quite a contrast to what China seeks. We see from bad deals, violations of sovereignty and lawlessness on land and sea that the Chinese Communist Party is a predator, and the United States comes in a different way.  We come as a friend and as a partner.” This was after President Rajapaksa had made it clear that “he is not ready to compromise the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation in maintaining foreign relations whatever the circumstances may be,” according to the statement issued by the Presidential Media Division. The President had also indicated that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is “determined by several conditions including historical and cultural relations and development cooperation. He made it a point to note that “China assisted in the development of the country’s infrastructure since the end of the separatist war … (and) that Sri Lanka was not caught in a debt trap as a result.” 

The two sets of statements capture the unique bind that Sri Lanka is in as China and the US make their manoeuvres for dominance in Asia. Add to that India’s sensitivity about its South Asian backyard. As well, there are internal factors contributing to Sri Lanka’s external dilemmas. The country is not a military power, except for internal put-downs. It carries nobody’s military bases, but endlessly labours under the illusion that every power in the world has a special strategic desire for Trincomalee. And it has serious preexisting conditions – fruitless historical preoccupations, highly poisoned internal ethnic politics, and a post-independence record of gross economic underachievement. All of which can be collectively overcome by a strong and rational leadership in government; in the absence of such leadership, Sri Lanka is left facing a set of mutually reinforcing dilemmas in its relationships with India, China, and America.

With India, Sri Lanka is constrained to have excellent government-to-government and elite-level relationships, while carefully nursing a deep seated political animosity towards that country. Political pandering to anti-Indian populism invariably carries the heavy economic price of missing out on business opportunities and bilateral trade advantages between two countries that share an enviably proximate market area. China has emerged as the lender of first resort, and increasingly so for Sri Lanka’s debt repayment cash-flow loans. All the while insisting that there is no debt trap and fancying that there is no limit to Chinese credit.

Long distance America is Sri Lanka’s biggest export market, as well as a major destination for its footloose families whose familial extensions can now be conveniently (and constitutionally) anchored in dual citizenships. Yet, thanks to the exportation of the island’s poisoned ethnic politics, anti-Americanism in Sri Lankan society has degenerated from the formerly stirring leftist rhetoric of anti-imperialism – to the now stifling paradox of hating anything that is official-American, while coveting everything otherwise-American for private progression.

This is a rough-sketch of the backdrop to Secretary Pompeo’s Sri Lankan visit. The missing elephant that cannot be fitted into this background is, ironically, as metaphorical proportions go, the novel coronavirus. It is the coronavirus that has become the perverse unifier of the world, and even giving the US and China another frontier to bicker about. China stands accused by the US as the originator of the virus, and Secretary Pompeo is one of the more ardent American accusers of China.

But no country in the world has so messed up its response to the virus as the United States of America, and it is the virus more than anything else that has transformed the routine quadrennial presidential election into a most consequential election in over hundred years. So, we return to the question that Modi or Rajapaksa may or may not have asked of Pompeo: “you think Trump will win?”

 

Who will win in America?

 

In a nutshell, Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, winning 30 States and 306 Electoral College votes against Hillary Clinton’s 20 States and 232 Electoral College (EC) votes. Trump passed the EC threshold of 270 votes and became President, even though he lost the popular vote to Clinton by nearly three million votes – 62.9 M to 65.8 M. Crucial to Trump’s victory were his unexpected wins by extremely narrow margins in three traditionally Democratic mid-western States, viz. Pennsylvania (20 EC votes), Michigan (16), and Wisconsin (10), yielding a total of 46 EC votes. If Hillary Clinton had won all three of them as she was predicted to, she would have won the presidency with 278 (232+46) EC votes to Trump’s 260 (306 minus 46) EC votes. But Hillary lost the three States, and Trump won the election. The rest has been four years of Trump presidency.

This time the Democratic Candidate and former (Obama’s) Vice President, Joe Biden, is healthily leading all the national opinion polls, just as Hillary Clinton was in 2016. But once bitten, the Democrats and polling pundits are twice shy about making bold predictions of Biden win this time. However, in 2016 while leading nationally, Mrs. Clinton’s leads over Trump in the three States she lost were within polling errors and she was vulnerable to a minor surge in Trump’s votes and a drop in hers. That is what happened eventually in 2016, whereas in this election, Joe Biden is showing healthy leads in the three States that he should win, and in half a dozen other States which also Trump won narrowly in 2016 and where he is vulnerable now. Trump cannot lose any of them.

Although Trump was not predicted to win last time, there were factors in the background that were able to coalesce and push him over the victory bar. This time the same factors are either absent, or have turned against him. His novelty to politics was a significant attraction among many voters in 2016. This time he is not new and he has to run against his record as President. The worst part of his record is the way he personally and by his leadership responded to Covid-19. Covid-19 became the biggest challenge of his presidency and even whatever public life he has had, and it exposed the worst in him. After he won the 2016 election, Trump never exercised moderation in anything to expand his electoral constituency beyond the narrow-minded and extreme political base that stands in unapologetic solidarity with him.

What is should be surprising, even shocking, is that for all his outrageous deviations from the basic norms of civilized society and politics, Trump should still command 30% to 40% support within the American population. That is what the opinion polls constantly tell us. Are the polls missing something – especially the voices of racially marginalized people who are either suppressed from or unmotivated towards voting in elections? At least that part of it seems to be changing in the current election. In 2016, 136 million people voted in the presidential election, which is 55% of America’s voting age population. This year, the advance voting – in person and by mail, reached 78 million, or 50% of the total 2016 vote a week before election day on November 3.

People have been waiting in long queues and over long hours in every City and in every part of America to cast their vote ahead of the election day. The long queues and long hours also tell the story of inadequate voting infrastructure – deliberately done to keep marginalized people from participating in the electoral process. Trump knew he was only going to win by keeping ordinary people as far away from voting as possible. In the end he may have provoked an unprecedented enthusiasm and surge in American voting. Is he going to win or lose? We will know before next Sunday.



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Sinharaja world heritage

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Conservation Outlook Assessment: Significant Concern

By Professor Emeritus Nimal Gunatilleke

Continued from Yesterday

 

Water diverted from Ampanagala reservoir to Muruthawela will be used to meet the irrigation deficit of Muruthawela and Kirama Oya systems and the balance will be transferred to Chandrika Wewa, through existing LB canal of Muruthawela scheme up to 13.8 km and a new canal of 17.0 km. After that, the water requirement of Hambantota harbour is to be transferred to Ridiyagama tank through the Walawe river and Liyangasthota anicuit. However, due to the extreme length of the diversion through the three-river basins of Nilwala, Kirama Ara and Urubokka Oya, it will lead to a massive conveyance losses of the diverted water while on the way to the Walawe basin. Furthermore, enormous costs associated with its construction, a failure to fully realise the intended outcomes due to a shortage of water budget will simply be a burden that Sri Lanka cannot afford with her current economic condition, according to Eng. Prema Hettiarachchi. It may be worth recording that the water ingress into the grouted tunnel of the Uma Oya near Ella has still not been fully repaired, even though the Uma Oya project is nearing completion. An expensive lesson to be learnt on the nature of the weathered geological structure, lineaments and implementing its unexpected and costly mitigatory measures which will eventually to be paid back by this and future generations of tax payers of this country.

According to the Irrigation Department web site postings, Mahaweli Consultancy Bureau has initiated the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), but due to the unavailability of concurrence of the Forest Department, revised TOR has not been issued by the CEA. Therefore, due to the unavailability of updated TOR, the EIA study has been delayed.

Environmentally, the most contentious issue highlighted in the news media is the proposed construction of a RCC dam at Madugeta to build a reservoir for which around 79 ha of forested (and some agricultural) lands in Sinharaja and a portion of prisine riverine forest in Dellawa would be inundated. On the Sinharaja side of the proposed Madugeta reservoir (right abutment) at present there are home gardens and small-scale tea plantations in addition to good riverine forests. In contrast however, proportionately a larger area of luxuriant forest of Dellawa, which is a part of the new ‘Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex’ would go under the chain saw for this reservoir construction (left abutment). The Geo-engineering report of May 2019 on GNDP has revised the siting of the dam to a more favourable location with supposedly reduced impacts but they forewarn that the three core-drilling along the proposed dam axis that had to be temporarily abandoned due to protests made by the villagers, need to be completed to confirm the geological suitability for the dam site.

 

Are there any Environment-Friendly Alternative Options?

As an alternative site for a dam on Gin Ganga, Eng. Nandasoma Atukorale (Specialist Engineer [Hydropower]) has proposed a location at the confluence of Mahadola with Gin Ganga at the village of Mederipitiya, way back in 2006. According to him, the riverbed at this site is 261 masl and have a catchment area of 132 km2. He proposes the construction of a 35 m high concrete gravity type dam that would form a reservoir with a storage capacity of 65 million cu.m and a potential discharge of 320 million cu.m of water annually which could divert 293 million cu. m of water to the SE Dry Zone. Most importantly, this region passes through a relatively narrow section of the river which is ideally suited for a dam according to him. However, geological suitability and socio-economic impacts of local communities need to be investigated, beforehand.

Quite interestingly, Eng. Athukorale claims that ‘although it is not economically very attractive, another 200 million cu.m of water could be diverted to the Nilwala basin by constructing a dam across Gin Ganga at the downstream of the confluence with Dellawa Dola at the village of Madugeta, with an 8000 m long tunnel which could be considered at a later stage provided further water shortages are experienced in the area’.

 

Now that the proposed Madugeta reservoir is receiving heavy criticisms from the environmental front, wonder whether Mederipitiya option proposed by Eng. Athukorale could be revisited for the diversion of Gin-Nilwala river water to the SE Dry Zone.

In a research paper titled ‘Comparison of Alternative Proposals for Domestic and Industrial Water Supply for Hambantota Industrial Development Zone’ Eng. Prema Hettiarachchi makes a comparison among three irrigation projects Kukule Ganga, Gin-Nilwala and Wey Ganga to convey water from the SW wet zone to SE dry zone.

She proposes yet another option that is probably still on the drawing boards to be considered which is the Wey Ganga diversion in Ratnapura District. According to her, this could meet the industrial and drinking water requirement (154 MCM + drinking water) of Hambantota metropolitan area at a significantly lower cost and with less damage to the environment. Further, there is a possibility of augmenting this scheme by diverting a part of Kalu Ganga catchment at a later stage.

Eng. Hettiarachchi further states that ‘by comparing the workload, it could be estimated to be nearly one third that of the Gin-Nilwala diversion. The Wey Ganga diversion can be carried out at a significantly lower cost by local agencies. That can also address the water scarcity of Hambantota metropolitan area including the requirements of international harbour and proposed industrial development zone with the relatively less environmental damage which is a major issue with respect to large scale projects. Construction period will also be less since the workload is less and can be carried out by the local agencies’.

What I have strived to show with this detailed irrigation engineering information available on public domain in the form of research publications, is that the Madugeta reservoir option is not the only one available for taking water from the wet zone rivers to the SE Dry Zone which is indeed a legitimate requirement for agricultural and industrial development of that region.

Pre-feasibility studies have been conducted on these options since 1968 and a considerable wealth of technical information is already available with the Irrigation Department. Apparently, according to knowledgeable irrigation engineers, there are more environmentally friendly, and cost-effective options with greater assurance of water conveyance to the SE Dry Zone available for consideration. It is often the case that during pre-feasibility studies of these large engineering projects, environmental concerns are given the least priority. Steady supply of water during extreme drought events which are becoming more frequent depends very much on the nature of the vegetation cover of the watershed area. These environmental aspects need to be critically evaluated before such costly projects are designed. As an example, although, the major engineering work of the Uma Oya project has been almost completed, its cost-effectiveness is yet to be seen with a denuded watershed, a potential of heavy soil erosion on top of the unexpected heavy expenditure on tunnel boring and other engineering works.

Biologically speaking, the Dellawa Forest Reserve is an integral part of Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex representing the pristine climax forest vegetation of SE wet lowlands and provide a vital connectivity link to adjoining Diyadawa forest of equal significance via the remains of Dombagoda forest. Therefore, clearing a riverine strip of this forest for the construction of Madugeta Reservoir would lead to an irreparable and irreplaceable damage to its characteristic riverine/flood plain forest vegetation.

On the other hand, pledging a reforestation initiative of a much larger area with Hevea rubber as a compensatory measure proposed by the political administration is totally unacceptable. Preserving intact forests in protected areas has no substitutes or replacements. Furthermore, the Natural Heritage Wilderness Area act and the binding articles of the UNESCO Convention on Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage to which Sri Lanka is a signatory, clearly state that causing direct or indirect damage to a natural heritage is legally not permissible.

In summary, the Sinharaja World Heritage Site is already in a state whose biological values are threatened and/or are showing signs of deterioration and significant additional conservation measures have been recommended to restore these values over the medium and long term. Adding more threats like the construction of reservoirs inside protected areas at this stage would inevitably downgrade the values further to a ‘critical conservation outlook’ which is not what the citizenry of Sri Lanka and the world at large would acknowledge as ‘sustainable development’.

The author of this article is a member of the National Sustainable Development Council of Sri Lanka and he thanks Dr Jagath Gunathilaka of Peradeniya University for providing the geotechnical information described herein. The author can be contacted at .)

 

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US seeking way out of Afghan killing field

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As the Biden administration makes its initial moves to extricate the US’ remaining security forces personnel from Afghanistan, it would do well to ponder on former US President John F. Kennedy’s insightful comment on foreign policy: ‘Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.’ This is a rare nugget on the nature of foreign policy.

Considering the high costs, human and economic, a country could incur as a result of blundering on its foreign policy front, Kennedy could be said to have spoken for all countries. However, there is no denying that the comment is particularly applicable to expansionist powers or ‘hegemonic’ states.

Sensible opinion is likely to be of the view that the US decision on quitting Afghanistan should have come very much earlier; may be a couple of years after its bloody misadventure in the conflict and war-ridden country. Considering the terribly high human costs in particular the US’ 20 long years in Afghanistan have incurred, the US could be said to have committed one of its worst foreign policy blunders, overshadowing in severity the blood-letting incurred by the super power in Vietnam. However, in both theatres, the consequences for the US have been of unbearable magnitude.

The US death toll speaks for itself. At the time of writing more than 2,300 US security forces personnel have been killed and over 20,000 injured in Afghanistan. Reports indicate that over 450 Britons have died in the same quagmire along with hundreds of similar personnel from numerous other nationalities. Apparently, it took an exceptionally long period of time for the US to realize that Afghanistan for it was a lost cause.

The lesson that the US and other expansionist powers ought to come to grips with is that it would not be an ‘easy ride’ for them in the complex conflict and war zones of the South. The ground realities in these theatres are of mind-boggling complexity and Afghanistan drives this point home with notable harshness. Power projection in South-west Asia and persistence with its ‘war on terror’ were among the apparent prime objectives of the US in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq but what the US did not evidently take into consideration before these military involvements were the internal political realities of these countries that are not at all amenable to simplistic analyses and policy prescriptions.

The Soviets ought to have come to grips with some features of the treacherous political terrain presented by Afghanistan in the late eighties but their principal preoccupations were related more to the compulsions of the Cold War. Simply put, the Soviets were bent on preserving the ‘satellite’ status of Afghanistan and their war effort was aimed at this in the main. Preparing Afghanistan for democracy was not even least among the Soviet Union’s concerns, of course.

However, the same does not apply to the US. The latter helped the Mujaheddin in the task of getting rid of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan but its aim was also to have a US-friendly regime in Kabul that would be a veritable bridgehead of US power and influence in the region on a continuous basis. In other words, the US expected the regime which replaced the Soviets to be pro-Western and essentially democracy-friendly. The US did not in any way bargain to have in Afghanistan Islamic fundamentalist regimes whose political philosophies were the anti-thesis of democracy as perceived in the US and practised by it.

However, the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime which eventually came to power in the mid-nineties in Afghanistan, once the Soviets withdrew, defied all Western expectations. As is known, the Taliban was not only repressive and undemocratic but was staunchly opposed to everything Western. There were no hopes of the Taliban working towards Western interests. Besides, the US did not expect to see in Afghanistan a country dangerously divided on ethnic, tribal and religious lines. The problems of Afghanistan have been compounded over the years by the coming together of the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda and these groups have world wide Islamic fundamentalist links.

It has been the aim of the US to have in Kabul religiously moderate, pro-democratic regimes but as developments have proved over the past few decades these administrations have not been in a position to hold out against the Taliban. In fact, it is the Taliban that is veritably at the helm of power in Afghanistan currently and years of futile attempts at trying to contain the Taliban have brought home to the US and its allies that they have no choice but to talk to the Taliban in order to secure some respite to effect ‘an honourable exit’ from the bloodied land. This is where matters stand at present.

However, as pointed out by commentators, it is the Afghan civilian population that has suffered most in the decades-long blood-letting in the country. Conservative estimates put the number of Afghan security forces personnel killed in Afghanistan at around 60,000 to date and the number of civilians killed at double that figure.

Accordingly, the Afghan people would be left to face an uncertain and highly risk-riddled future when the last of the US security forces personnel and their allies leave Afghanistan in September this year. The country would be left to its own devices and considering that the Taliban will likely be the dominant formation in the country and not its legitimate government, the lot of Afghan civilians is bound to be heart-rending.

There is plenty to ponder on for the US and other democratic countries in the agonies of Afghanistan. One lesson that offers itself is that not all countries of the South are ‘ready for democracy’. This applies to very many countries of the South that already claim to be democracies in the Western sense. Southern ‘democratic’ polities defy easy analysis and categorization in consideration of the multitude of identity markers they present along with the legitimacy that they have achieved in the eyes of their states and populations. What we have are dangerously volatile states riddled with contradictions. Relating to them will prove to be highly problematic for the rest of the world.

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The Soul

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The Soul (also known as Ji hun) is based on the sci-fi novel ‘Soul Transfer’, written by Jiang Bo in 2012. The novel was widely popular and inspired director Cheng Wei-Hao to adapt the tale into a movie. The story is about a married couple who are determined to uncover the truth behind strange activities in their community. According to the official synopsis for the film from Netflix, while investigating the death of a businessman, a prosecutor and his wife uncover occult secrets as they face their own life-and-death dilemma. The film stars Chang Chen, Janine Chang and Christopher Lee among others.

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