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Remembering Professor Ashley Halpe

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by Tissa Jayatilaka

As we mark the fifth anniversary of Professor Halpe’s passing, we remember him with gratitude and continue to celebrate his life and work. He was a teacher for over 50 years both at home and overseas. He also enriched us by his research, poetry, paintings and translations; as well as by his labours as a chorister, actor, director of plays and administrator. In addition, he was a guide, philosopher and friend to generations of students, many of whom have distinguished themselves in diverse fields of activity.

Whilst giving of himself, unstintingly, to the world around him in his characteristically understated style, Ashley Halpe’ remained the exemplary family man, a devoted husband and caring parent. So much so that it is impossible to speak or write about him without in the same breath mentioning his wife Bridget and children Mantha (Guy), Hassinee and Aparna.

Ashley Halpe’ was the quintessential Peradeniya man. He belonged to the very first batch of undergraduates who went up to the spanking new University of Ceylon on the banks of the Mahaweli Ganga in 1952 and remained there for almost his entire career except for a brief period in the early 1970s when he was unjustly compelled by the political authorities of the time to move to the then Vidyalankara Campus of the University of Sri Lanka.

In a chapter he contributed to a book on the Peradeniya University, Ashley Halpe’ has written enthusiastically and evocatively of the origins of his alma mater:

 

The whole concept was tremendous. This was no Oxford or Cambridge

growing at its own sweet pace over the centuries and evolving a visual

splendour of dreaming spires or of colleges by the Cam by imperceptible

increments. Peradeniya was all planning, its variations of Kandyan

architecture daringly blended with elements from Anuradhapura

and Polonnaruwa, the whole huge flower ” fragrant with shadow”

intricately balancing formal landscaping and chaste permitted wilderness

Complete with winding walks and warbling stream

Designed to breed debate and poetry. . .

 

[Peradeniya: Memories of a University. Eds. K.M de Silva and Tissa Jayatilaka]

 

Jean Arasanayagam, in a poetic tribute to Ashley Halpe’ has captured effectively this magic of Peradeniya:

 

That was the month I remember

When the trees were wreathed with coronets of flowers

Bougainvilleas bloomed in the ornamental park

Breathing in the excess of their own flamboyancy

We pushed aside their thorns

Crushed their tissue flowers like broken kites

Against our fingers.

 

It is this institution that nurtured Ashley Halpe’ and to which he gave back in ample measure. He did not hold back as did that miserly son who figures in that well known Sinhala folk poem. Peradeniya University did not ever have to pose to this distinguished son of hers the sad question that the distraught mother posed to her ungrateful son —manalada puthey kiri dunney ma nubata? Ashley Halpe’s giving was abundant and fulsome.

In addition to his appointment to the enormously prestigious and much-prized Chair of English at Peradeniya in 1965, at the young of 32, (he was one of the youngest to hold a University Chair in Ceylon), he served two terms as Dean of the Faculty of Arts, was the University Proctor, and head of the University Drama Society (DramSoc). Perhaps the only administrative responsibility he did not shoulder in his time is that of a Warden of a Hall of Residence.

Despite the load he carried as an administrator, Professor Halpe’ found the time for his academic and extra- curricular interests. His scholarly publication record which focused on aspects of Shakespearean drama and Shakespeare criticism and South Asian Creative Writing in English speaks for itself. Aside from several poems published in anthologies, three collections of Ashley Halpe’s poems are available. These are Silent Arbiters, Homing and other poems and Sigiri Verses, an adaptation of the 6th-9th Century Sinhala poems with an introduction and notes.

In a later publication Waiting for the Bells (2013), he brought together the poems that originally appeared in the two volumes, Silent Arbitersand Homing and other poems,a selection from his Sigiri Poems and other Sinhala translations, the complete Pasan,parts of which had appeared separately from time to time in various journals, and several other later poems. His labours as translator have yielded notable English versions of the novels and short stories of Martin Wickremasinghe.

That painting was one of Ashley Halpe’s varied talents and that he had held exhibitions of his paintings in Bristol, UK, in Sao Palo, Brazil and in Colombo and Peradeniya is not widely known. The energy and enthusiasm he invested in the Peradeniya University Dramatic Society (DramSoc) resulted in more than a dozen play productions designed and directed by him. Among these, my favourite is Strindberg’s The Father the 1966 offering of the DramSoc with the late Osmund Jayaratne in a memorable lead role. His contribution to education and literary activities outside the university is equally notable.

For the extensive and invaluable services detailed above, Professor Halpe’ was honoured both nationally and internationally. The Government of Sri Lanka conferred on him the Kalakeerthi and the Vishvaprasadini titles. The Governments of Sri Lanka and the United States awarded him two Fulbright Senior Fellowships while the Government of France made him Chevalier dans l’ordre Palmes Academique. He was an Honorary Fellow of Claire Hall, University of Cambridge, Resident Fellow at the Literary Criterion Centre for Indigenous Arts and Literature, Dhvanyaloka, Mysore, India, and Visiting Fellow at the American Studies Research Centre, Hyderabad, India.

All of these achievements and honours sat lightly on Ashley Halpe’ the man. His was an understated personality, with the humanity, humility and modesty of the truly educated person at its core. As a teacher, he did not mesmerize his students as some of his predecessors, notably Lyn Ludowyk and Doric de Souza, are reputed to have done. Not having had the good fortune of sitting at the feet of the former, the magister magistrorum, I shall accept the word of my predecessors at Peradeniya for this evaluation, but I certainly am able to vouch for the latter’s virtuosity having heard and watched him perform within the four walls of a classroom.

Ashley Halpe’ the teacher was calm and collected at all times and without histrionics of any kind. His knowledge and erudition were never on obvious display in or outside the classroom. He did not seek to talk at us. Rather his pedagogic labours were directed at ferreting out what we knew, thought and felt about literature and life. He never tried to poke us in the eye to make us see how much he knew! His disarming simplicity and unobtrusiveness was a crucial part of Ashley Halpe’s immense civility.

It was this Socratic teaching style combined with his respect for the students’ innate ability to chase leads that were offered that enabled him to reveal to us the inner depths plumbed by great men and women of letters as they (and we) grappled with the eternal verities. My own understanding of Shakespearean drama and the fiction of George Eliot in particular is due mostly to the manner and style with which Professor Halpe’ led me into discovering for myself those ‘spots of commonness’ of a Lydgate or the terrifying ambition of a Macbeth. That the hautboys one comes across in Macbeth are musical instruments and not arrogant young males is something I learnt thanks to Professor Halpe’s insistence on close reading and careful scrutiny of literary texts.

I wish to touch on certain personal recollections in conclusion. My freshman year at Peradeniya was suffused with boisterous antics as I revelled in ‘uncivilized fooling’ as most new entrants are wont to do. With the advantage of hindsight I am now aware that my unruly behaviour must have embarrassed Professor Halpe’ as he happened to be the University Proctor at the time. Besides the frolic and madness, there were other encounters of a serious nature during my early Peradeniya days that brought me unexpectedly close to Professor Halpe’. One such occurred during the insurgency of April 1971 when I was unwittingly in the way of possible grave harm. Without realizing that all student hostels except Hilda Obeyesekere Hall had been declared out of bounds for all male undergraduates by the authorities, I was yet at Arunachalam Hall after the new emergency arrangements had been enforced. It is more than likely that I would have been a victim of the ‘shoot to kill’ orders in force given especially the fact that my physical appearance at the time, replete with long hair and flourishing beard, qualified me to be thought of as a ‘Che Guevarist’ student revolutionary by the uniformed men in charge of crushing the insurgency.

I sought refuge at Professor and Mrs.Halpe’s house and was promptly thereafter placed under house arrest at the Lower Hantane residence of the Halpes. To keep me from landing in any further danger, with a little help from Fr.Augustine, the Catholic Chaplain of the University, the Halpes introduced me to the blessed game of Bridge. It was only after the coast was quite clear that I was eventually allowed to leave. I later came to know that Professor Halpe’ had taken even greater care of those undergraduates taken into custody under the hurriedly promulgated emergency regulations to deal with the insurgency.

It must surely have taken much courage for him to pursue this course as members of the university academic community were under suspicion and at the receiving end of the hostility of the military personnel because there were some dons who themselves were either involved in the uprising or were among those who empathized with the political convictions of the youthful insurgents. Bearing books, sympathy and understanding, Professor Halpe’ regularly visited the detained undergraduates. Later on, he was among the university authorities who assisted those of the detainees desirous of sitting their university examinations from prison.

The Halpe’ residence at Lower Hantane was also our not infrequent venue for DramSoc rehearsals, Music Society socials and several other memorable undergraduate activities. It was at these extra-curricular encounters that students and lecturers mingled informally. Looking down at us from his vantage point, Sir Ivor Jennings would doubtless have blessed the Halpes for keeping alive one of the finest aspects of a residential university like Peradeniya, viz,- that of fostering close intellectual and social interaction between the teachers and the taught. Professor and Mrs. Halpe’ were exemplary in upholding this wonderful Peradeniya tradition.

Of those with an education in the humanities that I have known and know personally, there indeed are only a handful who actually live by or reflect the virtues of and values of such an education. Indeed of only a few humanities specialists can it truly be said that all that’s best of literature and the arts meets in his aspect and his eyes. Professor Halpe’ was indisputably one of the very distinguished members of this wee tribe. I have never heard or seen in print harsh and disparaging words from him about anyone. His concern for family, friends and colleagues was sincere and heartfelt.

Two examples are offered in illustration of his inherent goodness as a person. The first of these is his taking care of his former teacher and later senior colleague Professor Hector Passe’ during the latter’s difficult and lonely last several months of post-retirement existence, subsequent to the early deaths of his wife and only child. He not only provided Professor Passe’ a home but also kept him gainfully occupied by inviting him to teach part-time. During this period, Professor Passe’ once more became a participant in all of the English Department social activities as well. In fact it was while enjoying himself in the company of his students and colleagues at a Going Down dinner that Professor Passe’ fell ill and passed away soon thereafter. Thus it was Professor Halpe’ who made it possible for Professor Passe’ to die with his boots on so to speak- – a consummation any teacher would devoutly wish for.

The other example is a very personal experience. At an extremely vulnerable early stage in my career as a young Assistant Lecturer at Peradeniya, I had occasion to turn to Professor Halpe’ for succour. Having laid bare my inner turmoil, I asked Professor Halpe’ for advice and direction. I qualified my request for assistance by saying ‘Sir, to a non-believer like myself, you are my God on earth.’ He did offer me ‘sentence and solace.’ Before he left me to ponder over his response, however, he said, ‘thank you for your deep faith in me, but, please, for my sake, let me remain human.’

Ashley Halpe’ may have on occasion revealed the clay in his feet. In so doing, he has offered proof of his human fallibity and vulnerability. If any amongst us has found him wanting in this respect, it is perhaps his or her fault for expecting Professor Halpe’ to be infinitely more than human as I did in my callow youth. For all of his human frailties or despite them, Ashley Halpe’ was a very true, near perfect, gentle human being. It is indeed a privilege to pay this public tribute to him on the fifth anniversary of his passing.



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Bamboo vs.Willow

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by Katrina Kramer

Cricket bats made from bamboo might help batters hit farther and faster, researchers have discovered. While willow has been the bat wood of choice for nearly 200 years, bamboo could deliver more energy to the ball during impact, though at the price of being much heavier. But bamboo’s fast growth could help make the sport more affordable to its rapidly growing fanbase.

 Source: © Tom Almeroth-Williams

Almost all high-end cricket bat willow comes from just two suppliers in England. The trees take around 15 years to mature, and bat makers often discard up to 30% of the wood due to imperfections.

Darshil Shah, former member of Thailand’s under-19 national cricket team, and his colleagues from the University of Cambridge, UK, decided to investigate bamboo as an alternative. Bamboo is cheap and grows in many countries that have seen increasing cricket participation – China, Japan and South America for example. The plant matures within six years and can produce several harvests without needing to be replanted.

Darshil Shah holding a bamboo cricket bat …. Source: © Tom Almeroth-Williams

Working with cricket bat manufacturer Garrard & Flack, the team created a bat from bamboo strips held together with an adhesive. The bat turned out to be fairly heavy, since bamboo is denser than willow, lending itself to straight rather than cross strokes, Shah recounts. ‘But because it is stiffer, we can reduce the thickness of the blade, which will reduce the weight,’ he explains. His team was surprised to find that the bamboo bat also had a larger sweet spot, the area that transfers maximum energy onto the ball on impact.

‘The other important property is the sound of a bat,’ says Shah. Bamboo’s resonant frequencies are almost identical to willow’s, so players and spectators are unlikely to notice the difference.

The mechanical differences between the materials come down to cellular rather than molecular differences, says wood materials scientist Ingo Burgert from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, ETH Zurich. Both bamboo and willow contain cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin as their main structural components. But in trees, water and sugar transport take place in different tissue types. As a type of grass, there’s only one structure performing both functions in bamboo, Burgert explains.

The current prototype is about 40% heavier than a traditional bat, because bamboo is denser

One way to get an idea of a bamboo’s potential is from children playing baseball with bamboo bats, says Philip Evans from the Wood Surface Science Lab at the University of British Columbia in Canada. ‘They mention that the bat is heavy, but they also say that the ball pings off well.’ However, unlike willow, bamboo doesn’t recover well from deformation and becomes dented more easily.

However, as a game steeped in tradition, cricket regulators have so far resisted changes to bat material and design. Since 1979, when Australian cricketer Dennis Lillee used an aluminium bat in a match against the English team, rules have only allowed for wooden blades in professional games. And no amount of science will convince cricketers if the bat doesn’t feel and handle right, Evans points out. ‘But if the work at the Cambridge group can put bats in the hands of young kids who have fun playing cricket then that’s great,’ he adds.

‘Certain uses, like cricket bats and musical instruments get associated with particular species to the point that people stop considering if any other species would work,’ says Dan Ridley-Ellis, head of the Centre Wood Science and Technology at Edinburgh Napier University in the UK. ‘But two bits of wood from one species can be as different – in terms of properties like density and stiffness – as two pieces of different species. It becomes increasingly important to look for alternatives, species and sources, to meet wood demand without costing too much financially or ecologically.’

Understanding bamboo’s properties, in particular its sound absorption behaviour, might also help Shah and his colleagues with their principal research: understanding how bamboo and engineered timber could be used in the construction sector.

(Chemistry World)

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The Increasing Incidents of Container Ship Fires and Environmental Destruction

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by Dr Manique Cooray

Fires at sea continue to pose a significant risk to container shipping and often give rise to long-winded and complex claims between all affected parties. Space does not permit even a cursory examination of the large body of relevant international legal provisions available. Moreover, the rise of containerisation has exacerbated the problem of fire on board ships as we have seen with the MV Hansa Brandenburg, the Jolly Rubino, the Maersk Londrina and recently in February 2017, in the MV APL Austria case where a Liberian flagged container ship caught fire off the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

In the backdrop of the ongoing environmental catastrophe in one of Sri Lanka’s worst ever marine disasters, it is imperative to address two issues that seem to be of central importance pertaining to the cargo ship carrying tonnes of chemicals which now lie in the seabed off the west coast of the Island. The Singapore registered MV X-Press Pearl, Super Eco 2700-class container ship was built by Zhoushan Changhong International Shipyard Co. Ltd at Zhoushan, China, for Singapore based X-Press Feeders and its sister ship X-Press Mekong. The 37,000 dead weight tonne (DWT) container vessel could carry 2,743 twenty-foot equivalent units. The ship was delivered on February 10, 2021. It had a 25-member crew including Filipinos, Chinese, Indian and Russian nationals. It was carrying 1,486 containers, among them 81 carrying dangerous goods, which included 25 tonnes of nitric acid, along with other chemicals, cosmetics and low-density polyethylene (LDPE) pellets. Reports indicate the vessel was deployed in the Straits of Malacca to Middle East (SMX) service of X-Press Feeders, from Port Klang (Malaysia) via Singapore and Jebel Ali (UAE) to Hamad Port (Qatar). The return journey to Malaysia was to be via Hazira (India) and Colombo (Sri Lanka). It was reported that the ship’s crew had noticed the leakage of nitric acid from one of the containers when the vessel set sail to the Port of Colombo.

It is common knowledge that under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, no vessel can enter a country’s “territorial water” extending up to 12 miles from the nearest land without approval from the coastal state. Nevertheless, bearing in mind that Sri Lanka is a signatory to the Basel Convention, it is not the aim here to address basic questions on how, why and who authorized a vessel with a container leaking nitric acid to enter the territorial waters of the country carrying hazardous material. This entry into Sri Lankan waters could have been under “Port of Refuge”, a situation wherein a ship deviates to a port due to an emergency which renders the ship unsafe to continue on her voyage.

The ill-fated ship erupted in a fire while anchored about 9.5 nautical miles northwest of Colombo. The Sri Lankan navy believes the fire was caused by a chemical reaction from the leaking cargo loaded from the port of Hazira in India. As flaming containers laden with chemicals fell from the ship’s deck, seawater may have entered the hull that submerged the MV X-Press Pearl’s quarterdeck a day after firefighters extinguished the fire. With such a dramatic turn of events of an overseas registered ship, carrying crewmen of various nationalities and cargo belonging presumably to various parties, and with a vessel located within the territorial waters of Sri Lanka, presents itself a plethora of issues in conflict of laws determining principles of choice of law with recognition and enforcement of foreign judgments.

While the local authorities are moving to sue the owners of the vessel to claim damages from the insurer, the suitability of existing Penal Provisions and the Marine Pollution Prevention Act No 35 of 2008 of Sri Lanka raises the question of its adequacy as the principle legislation of the forum state to hear a case of such magnitude of which the main issue is to claim compensation. Insurers of cargo vessels generally require the owners and operators to adhere to internationally recognized guidance concerned with maximizing the overall safety of the vessel, the crew and the cargo. One part of the guidance is the International Maritime Organizations Dangerous Goods Code (IMDG Code), an internationally accepted guideline for the transportation or shipment of dangerous goods or materials by a vessel on water.

Even a cargo that might be quite innocuous in small quantities can display dangerous properties when transported in large quantities, especially if those large quantities of material are exposed to environmental conditions such as moisture or heat, during or prior to loading, or during a voyage. Under the Hague-Visby Rules, the liability regime for the carriage of most cargo, neither the carrier nor the shipowner is responsible for loss or damage arising or resulting from fire unless caused by the actual fault or privity of the shipowner or carrier. To successfully recover for damage to cargo from the shipowner or to defend a claim for general average, the cargo owner must show a lack of due diligence of the shipowner to make the ship seaworthy and safe to receive, carry and discharge the cargo. From a procedural perspective, “(i) the cargo owner must prove their loss; (ii) the carrier or shipowner must prove the cause of loss (i.e., that the fire caused the loss); (iii) the carrier or shipowner must prove due diligence to make the ship seaworthy prior to and at the commencement of the voyage; and (iv) the cargo owner must prove fault of the carrier or shipowner or knowledge of fault or another for whom the carrier or shipowner is responsible.”

The shipowner is not liable for an act or omission by the crew. If the negligence of the crew caused the fire, this is a complete defence for the shipowner unless the cargo owner can show that there was some lack of due diligence by the shipowner, which made the ship unseaworthy. In the case of fires at sea, this would include the shipowner failing to exercise due diligence insofar as the crew fighting the fire is concerned, a lack of adequate firefighting systems, lack of training, or lack of procedural guidance from owner or carriers to the crew. Cargo owners are also likely to be successful in claiming against a shipowner where it is shown that the shipowner or carrier failed to correctly stow dangerous or hazardous cargo (provided that such cargo was correctly declared) in accordance with IMDG guidelines. In the event a shipowner can rely on a “fire defence”, the cargo owner (or their insurers) may be left with a recovery action against the shipper of the miss declared cargo. However, this often involves expensive litigation in a foreign jurisdiction where the “guilty” shipper may be a brass plate company without any assets to satisfy millions of dollars worth of damages to the ship and her cargo and let alone the environmental aftermath. This means that the insurer may be liable, and the affected party could claim compensation from the shipowner.

From the brief facts at hand, it appears to be a total loss for the shipowner even if the vessel stays afloat with what appears to be, if not all, of the cargo, damaged. Although there is much uncertainty over the size of the loss, it is safe to assume that insurers will face cargo and liability claims and the value of the hull and machinery. The value of these claims have not yet been made known. It is highly possible for the fire and explosion losses to be covered under cargo insurance policies among various companies which are party to it. The London Steam Ship Owners Mutual Insurance Association Ltd and its subsidiary, the London P&I Insurance Company (Europe) Ltd, in a press statement on May 26, 2021, stated that as the “liability insurer, it would cover crew injuries and any environmental impact.” A study of previous cases of similar nature indicates that a vessel sinking in deep water perhaps is a better outcome for the insurer than saving it and bringing it back to port with the heavy cleanup costs incurred. Perhaps in this current scenario, the P&I insurer could end up covering the cargo and salvage costs.

The environmental impact of the fire could have a significant bearing on the size of the P&I claim leading to potentially hundreds of millions, as previous cases have shown us. It is well to keep in mind that while the owners of the ship are maybe accountable for bringing the ship to the territorial waters, the local authorities themselves may have a share in their contribution by their bad choice of actions. It is highly questionable whether adequate compensation could be secured given the larger environmental impact (an impact which may be seen beyond the limitation period for such claims to be brought) under the existing lacuna in the local law. Hence, the importance of the forum state to take on such a mammoth legal action against the parties possibly raises the issues of whether recourse should be made to an international maritime arbitration tribunal permitting contractual arrangements.

The second issue to be addressed is whether a special legal regime in the nature of strict liability is needed to cover the irreparable damage caused to the Sri Lankan Sea, marine lives, including the coral reefs and the fisheries industry. There is now an additional danger that fuel tanks of the stricken vessel containing thousands of tons of thick bunker oil could break up under the pressure of the seawater and discharge its deadly cargo into the ocean. The Wildlife Conservation Department of Sri Lanka states that apart from the fish species, the harm done to seagrasses and nesting habitats, sea mammals, and reptiles will also be substantial and that their “initial observations reveal the spill-over effect will last for more than 100 years.” The illustration of the Exxon Valdez’s incident in 1989 and the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 indicates that the oil spill is a severe threat to the maritime environment. A review of this incident may be a good reference to seek a fair understanding of the circumstances and for proper estimation and preparation in encountering massive oil spills.

The harm caused by many environmental incidents are not only contained within the borders of the states, but pollution originating from one state may cause harm to another state. And pollution which damages the Oceans does not belong to one state alone. This type of harm raises a number of acute legal conundrums. Establishing causal connections between effects such as damage to marine life or extinction of species and a particular source of pollution, which could be targeted by a system of liability and compensation rules, may be extremely difficult. In the absence of intergovernmental compensation regimes or where individual states seek compensation for cross border pollution, claims must be made in domestic courts. In such situations, the importance of conflict of laws rules about jurisdiction, choice of law, and recognition of judgments matters. One could plausibly conclude that X-Press Pearl too may find its unfortunate place in legal history for the colossal task it has presented of assessing harm to the environment caused in a line of container ship losses in the maritime insurance industry.

 

(The writer is a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Law, Multimedia University. Malaysia and was the Dean of the Faculty of Law from 2014-2016 and 2018-2021.)

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Cold War to COVAX: New US President rallies allies, but no brave new world in sight

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by Rajan Philips

Six months in office, President Biden took his first foreign trip last week, attending the first in-person G7 summit after the pandemic over the weekend, at Carbis Bay in Cornwall, England, and meeting with Vladimir Putin on Wednesday in Geneva. In between, he attended a summit gathering of NATO member country leaders on Monday and met with the European Council on Tuesday. The G7, NATO and the EU meetings became occasions for diplomatic China bashing. And China responded in kind and more, through its Embassies in London and in Europe rather than by the mandarins in Beijing. China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy might be irksome to old school sensibilities, but China seems to be in no hurry to change its modes of diplomacy to please anybody.

Everything is different now from the geopolitics of Cold War. Russia is no longer the West’s main adversary, and capitalism and socialism are not the same weighty words as they once were. Vladimir Putin is, at best, or worst, mostly a significant spoiler. It is China that looms large from the East, pre-occupying western powers, but the terms of engagement now are more competitive and less conflictual. The world is currently without any serious skirmishes, internal or otherwise. There is a lull even in the Middle East, and there are hopes that it might continue with both Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump out of power, at least for now. But where violence has receded, the pandemic has taken over. And Cold War politics has given way to vaccine politics.

 

When history fails to turn

Yet, after much haggling and despite promises to do a lot more, G7 leaders were not able to come up with anything more than one billion vaccine doses when 11 billion of them are needed to immunize the world’s population. Gordon Brown, former British Finance Minister and later Prime Minister, has called the G7 summit another missed opportunity in the history of summits, “another turning point where history failed to turn.” He blamed G7 leaders for their failure to honour the pre-summit promise of Prime Minister Boris Johnson to vaccinate the entire world.

Besides Johnson, more than 100 former world leaders had called on G7 leaders to pledge $44bn of the $66bn needed to vaccinate the world, or eight billion doses and not one billion. A joint Norway-South Africa plan had worked out that eight billion doses donation would involve 27% contribution from the US and 22% contribution from the EU. The current US promise of 500 million doses amounts to 50%, which is a significant share but of the pathetically scaled down one billion promise of the Group of Seven countries. In early May , President Biden announced America’s support for waiving western vaccine patents to facilitate worldwide production and supply of COVID-19 vaccines. His radical turn surprised many, but found no support in G7 and the summit once again “failed to turn.”

Aid and welfare agencies are palpably disappointed with the poor show of vaccine generosity by the wealthiest of the world’s nations, and these civil societies are not likely to be enthused by President Biden’s clarion call for democracies of the world to unite against its autocrats. Nor are other G7 countries entirely enthusiastic about agreeing with the US policy towards China. A number of them do not want to alienate China which they see has a necessary role to play in the global economic recovery after the pandemic. To non-American observers, Biden’s position on China is not very different from that of Trump; what is different is the absence of Trump’s narcissism and racism. And America’s allies, while relieved at the exit of Trump and the entry of Biden, are also unsure that there will not be another political recession in the US similar to what they have had to unexpectedly encounter over the last five years.

Even though China was the main subject at the summit, the final statement reflected a balance between the pushes and pulls between America and its allies. Perhaps the sharpest note in the 70-point G7 statement could be the reopening of the ‘origin’ controversy involving the coronavirus. The summit’s call to make a “science-based” determination of the origins of COVID-19 may have better served its totally legitimate and objective purpose if the call too could have found a science-based origin rather than adversarial politics. Unfortunately, there is no international mechanism to facilitate such a consensus.

As Secretary General António Guterres rued last September marking the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, “the pandemic is a clear test of international cooperation — a test we have essentially failed.” The G7 summit, while it was positively different with Biden displacing Trump as America’s President, came nowhere near to rectifying the failure of international cooperation that the Secretary General was alluding to. There are many things about China that are not at all unexceptionable, but isolating a giant of a country and economic powerhouse is not the way to foster international co-operation, or to determine the truth about the origins of COVID-19.

Two days after G7, NATO got in on the act of targeting China, for first time in its deliberations, and calling China’s actions as a threat to “rules-based international order.” China responded calling NATO to stop “slandering” and to “devote more of its energy to promoting dialogue”. That NATO’s take on China may have been more a manifestation of bureaucratic overreach and not political consensus became evident from the notes of caution that came from the British and French leaders, among others. Prime Minister Boris Johnson asserted that nobody “around the table wants to descend into a new Cold War with China.” France’s Emmanuel Macron had earlier admonished that “China has little to do with the North Atlantic,” while Germany’s Angela Merkel had apparently emphasized that western alliances are “not about being against something, but for something”.

 

Positive Initiatives

Besides COVID-19, the summit focused on human rights, again targeting China over human rights violations in Xinjiang and in Hong Kong. A somewhat positively competitive response to China was the announcement of a new global infrastructure plan. In an obvious counter to China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, the G7 group at America’s prompting has come up with an initiative of its own, called “Build Back Better World (B3W).”

The new plan is expected to raise about $40 trillion by 2035, and will focus on improving “climate, health and health security, digital technology, and gender equity and equality” conditions in developing countries. By comparison, China’s Belt and Road initiative launched in 2013 is bankrolled solely by China to the tune of $160 billion and is expected to focus more on hard infrastructure projects. The rest of the world can only applaud the two initiatives while hoping that the two promoters will allow other countries to proportionately benefit from both, and not from one or the other.

An even more far reaching summit outcome is the agreement on global corporate taxation. Already in the run-up to the summit, G7 Finance Ministers had reached a deal on (1) source-taxing corporations (i.e., to tax businesses in the countries where they conduct business and earn income); and (2) a global minimum tax proposal of 15% on businesses. The 15% rate is lower than the business tax rate in every G7 country, so this is not a tax increase in those countries. But what it will do is to expose to taxation multinationals and digital companies that now keep running for tax holidays and tax havens. Netherlands, Luxembourg, Singapore, and Ireland are among the more established tax havens, where “phantom investments” flow but no physical manifestations (as in factories, sales, or jobs) are seen. According to the IMF, “phantom investments” account for 40% of the world’s much coveted FDIs (Foreign Direct Investments). Is Sri Lanka’s Port City meant to be a magnet for its miniscule share of phantom investments?

The G7 agreement over global taxation is really the culmination of a much broader effort involving more than 100 countries working over a number of years. And the estimated revenues from global taxation are quite significant – ranging between $250 billion to $600 billion annually. While the G7 agreements is a big step forward, there are obstacles ahead as nothing can be done without the support of everyone. US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen mooted the idea for global taxation long before the G7 summit, but it will have to pass muster in the US congress. There is broad support in the EU, but Ireland could be an outlier. The next forum for the global taxation effort will be the gathering of G20 Finance Ministers in Venice in July. Large countries from every continent including China and India will be at the table. Its outcome will offer clues about the pace of global taxation reform.

 

From Nixon to Biden

The Guardian in one of its editorials last week recalled something that no one in the US or China would seem to have bothered to note so far. It is that next month would be the 50th anniversary of Henry Kissinger’s secret mission to China to prepare the path for President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in February 1972. The visit lasted a week, “the week that changed the world,” as President Nixon famously declared. No one, not even President Biden, is going suggest that the new President’s first week of foreign forays in England and in Europe is going to change the world. But there is no denying the extent to which the world has changed between Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 and Biden’s visit to Europe in 2021. It is not that Nixon’s visit changed the world, but only that he seized the opportunity in a world that was already beginning to change.

Henry Kissinger reportedly assured Chinese leaders that “It is the conviction of President Nixon that a strong and developing People’s Republic of China poses no threat to any essential US interest.” Fifty years later, President Biden is calling on democracies to come together against the world’s authoritarian powers, primarily China. In a sense, Biden’s meeting with Russia’s Putin in Geneva last Wednesday caricatures Nixon’s historic visit to China. The summit was a useful necessity even if it was mostly meant for the domestic audiences of the two leaders. Putin wanted to show Russians that under him their country is still a force to reckon with, even though it no longer has the armour of a Soviet Union. For Biden, it yet another demonstration that Trump is gone and America is back. Yet, it was useful that the two leaders have opened a dialogue, which is essential if any headway is to be made, especially in the Middle East.

But it will be paradise lost if America and the West were to fail to open a new dialogue with China without isolating it or ganging up on it. Western leaders made the same mistake after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when they isolated Russia and invited all the former Warsaw Pact countries to join NATO and gang up on Russia. But there is no comparison between Russia without the Soviet Union and 21st century China that is set to surpass the US as the world’s biggest economy in a matter of decades. Yet, there are also growing backlashes against China even as its economic power grows, not only in the West but also in China’s own backyard and wider Asia. The EU, Lithuania and Hungary have recently blocked or put on hold economic partnership prospects with China. On the other side, Australia, South Korea, India, and South Africa are open to aligning themselves with G7 countries. They were all in sidebar attendance at the G7 summit.

If there is paradise to be regained, it can only be through the working of multilateralism. For all its unanticipated problems, the 21st century is remarkable for growing reality of multilateralism in spite of its serious institutional limitations. Beefing up the world’s multilateral institutions should be the first order of business for world leaders in whatever forums they gather. That was not anyone’s agenda at the G7 summit. Nor is it likely to be uppermost in China when it will celebrate, on July 1, the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party.

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