13 October 2014

Indian astronomer finds galaxy that pumps out radiation from stars

Hindustan Times 
October 13, 2014

An Indian astronomer and her team at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, US has identified a galaxy 2.9 billion light-years away that's vigorously pumping out ultraviolet radiation. This discovery can help get a better understanding on the evolution of cosmos and exploration of new ones.
The galaxy in Ursa Major has been named J0921+4509. (Photo courtesy: NASA, ESA, R Overzier (ON/MCTI), T Heckman (JHU))

The discovery has been reported in the journal Science on Friday.

Sanchayeeta Borthakur and her colleagues used the cosmic origins spectrograph aboard NASA's Hubble space telescope to examine the galaxy named J0921+4509, which is located about three billion light-years away in Ursa Major.

"Our discovery of ionising radiation escaping galaxy J0921+4509 presents a viable and highly likely scenario where young stars can create gaps in their cloud blanket. And through these holes, extreme ultraviolet radiation capable of ionizing hydrogen can freely stream out. We believe that this is what is going on in the very first galaxies, "lead author Sanchayeeta Borthakur said.

Explaining the process she said, "This galaxy produced a billion solar masses of stars in a region of few hundred light years across and their combined force (in the form of stellar winds) blew part of the cloud cover. This creates tunnels for high energy extreme ultraviolet photons to escape.

"We used the Hubble space telescope to directly detect the escaping ionizing flux from this galaxy, she said, adding, "This is the first case in the nearby universe that we detected such a large escape fraction of 21% (the best nearby candidates have 1-3% escaping photons)."

The god in US dollar

Oct 13, 2014

Almost a quarter of the global trade is accounted by the US, Germany and Japan. The EU share of world trade is $4.49 trillion and the US’ is $3.91 trillion also accounting for about a quarter of world trade.

Imagine living on an island as a part of a small group, each of whom is assigned a specific vocation and task. In this system one person makes clothes, another shoes, some one pots and pans, some one grows food and someone else prints money to facilitate exchange of goods and services. So the shoemaker exchanges his goods with another for money and in turn pays with that money for food or whatever. Since everybody in this system can produce as much as possible, the person who prints the money will be best off among all because he can buy whatever he wants and pay for it with his own money. Take this one step further then. Producers who come to hold more paper than they need then start leaving it with the person who prints them to hold and lend. Expand this to the global scale and we pretty much have something similar to the world system.

In 2012, the world gross domestic product (WGDP) totaled about $71.83 trillion ($45.73 trillion in 1990 US dollars) and the per capita GDP was $12,400. During the past eight years the WGDP grew at about 4 per cent a year. In 1960, the WGDP was $6.85 trillion (1990). The WGDP was just $1.1 trillion in 1900 and took half a century to grow fourfold to $4.01 trillion and grew 10 fold in the next 50 to $41 trillion (1990). The big leaps began after 1971 when US President Richard Nixon unilaterally delinked the US dollar from the international gold standard.

The total world trade in 2013 was $37.7 trillion, with China (including Hong Kong) being the biggest player, accounting for $5.31 trillion. The top five global traders account for $19.11 trillion or 50.6 per cent of global trade. Almost a quarter of the global trade is accounted by the US, Germany and Japan. The EU share of world trade is $4.49 trillion and the US’ is $3.91 trillion also accounting for about a quarter of world trade.

The total world reserves in 2014-Q2 was $12.00 trillion, of which 60.7 per cent was held in US dollars, 24.2 per cent in euros, 4 per cent in yen and 3.9 per cent in UK pounds. Since the reserves are mostly in US dollars and euros, the issuing countries have little reason to hold much as reserves. The US’ total reserves amount to about $139 billion. Germany, France and UK even less. Contrast this to India’s $298 billion and China’s $4055 billion. This last figure will tell you how much China is invested in the US, and also how much leverage the US can exercise over China to ensure complaint behaviour. In 1995, advanced economies held around 67 per cent of total foreign exchange reserves. By 2011, the picture had been flipped on its head: emerging and developing countries held 67 per cent of total reserves. Emerging countries now hold roughly $6.8 trillion in reserve currency.

Now lets turn to see how the system actually works. The emerging countries produce goods and services at the lowest costs for consumption in the US, which in turn pays them in dollars, which they in turn deposit in US banks. Give or take a little. Since money cannot sit still, this money in US banks is then lent to Americans, who today have the highest per capita indebtedness in the world, to splurge on houses, cars, HD TV’s, computers and play stations, which they can often ill-afford. The cumulative debt of US households is now $11.4 trillion. Credit card debt alone of each US household is about $15,000. There are 160 million credit cards in the US.

The irony is that this is well understood, but like the people who kept investing with Bernard Madoff, countries like China, Russia, Japan, Kuwait, India and others keep investing in US securities at interest rates mostly between 1-2 per cent. Thus, in effect the rest of the world was plying the US with cheap credit, encouraging it to splurge even more. Unfortunately, there was and is no global regulator to caution the US on its profligacy or force it to mend its ways. There is also no global regulator who can ensure that countries like China balance their trade. Thus, it is US profligacy and Chinese surpluses parked in US banks that are the biggest cause of this dysfunction.

At the Breton Woods Conference of July 1944 that took place under the fast receding shadow of WWII, Lord Keynes had in mind an elaborate scheme that called for the establishment of an international reserve currency. But this had to be shelved in the face of American obduracy. Keynes’ proposals would have established a world reserve currency called “Bancor” to be administered by an international Central Bank. This Central Bank would have been vested with the responsibility of creating money and with the authority to take actions on a much larger scale. In case of balance of payments imbalances, Keynes recommended that countries with payment surpluses should increase their imports from the deficit countries and thereby create foreign trade equilibrium.


13 October 2014 

At a time when the democratically elected Government of Jammu & Kashmir had failed in its civic duties and was fumbling in the dark, it was the Indian Army, the supposed villain in the region, that emerged as the knight in shining armour

While India’s Army, its corporate sector and social media were busy helping the people of the flood-hit Kashmir to survive and recover from some of the worst floods in living memory, a slow crescendo was building up claiming in effect that these actions “did not wipe out the sins of the past”.

In that barrage of negativity that kept going with our relief efforts, there are two points that we need to understand. First — what each of the protagonists do and what they said. Second — what their motivations are.

The Armed Forces on their part proved the necessity of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act when it is used well. The Army, used this very law requisitioning some of the infrastructure for its relief work. Supposedly reviled by the Kashmiris, the butt of Pakistani venom, the Army faced complete apathy in normal times from the bulk of Kashmir’s population. Yet, had it not been for the Army’s rescue teams and its “infrastructure of occupation” as secessionists would call it, how many more lives would have been lost?

At a time when the democratically elected Government of Jammu & Kashmir had failed in its civic duties in buttressing the embankments (which they should have know about anyway) and a Home Ministry that was fumbling in the dark, it is this supposed villain that had come out as the knight in shining armour. 

However, did it actually at any point of time claim that somehow these actions had wiped the slate clean? No. Because like any loyal soldier of the Indian state, Army men did what they weer told to do: Keep order by any means necessary and rescue people by any means necessary. Yet the nay-sayers (why is it that so many of them emerge at times of tragedy) created a straw man entirely of their own making — that the Army was somehow using its valiant efforts to whitewash the past — and then brought down this argument. So what exactly was the Army meant to do? Shoot down reporters who reported on their rescue efforts? Or claim that it wasn’t the Indian Army but the Pakistan Army that was helping people — given that the latter’s humanitarian streak was visible to the whole world in 1971 in Bangladesh and almost every year in the erstwhile North West Frontier Province?

The second protagonist here is social media. In a sense the report by Aman Sharma dated September 9 in The Economic Times captures the social media side of things. The Home Secretary Anil Goswami — normally one of the most powerful men in India — seems completely cut-off from information claiming “I simply cannot speak to anyone in Jammu & Kahmir”. The last 72 hours have seen near total collapse of the phone network, and power lines too have collapsed. This has complicated coordination and rescue, because stranded people have no way of intimating recue centres to their plight. Worse still, Delhi is cut off from the Government of Jammu & Kashmir, while the Government of Jammu & Kashmir is cut off from the Army which is coordinating rescue efforts. The Army is the only body that managed to maintain some semblance of intra-organisational communications due to its use of satellite phones. However, it has no way of knowing where people are stranded, how many and how critical their situation is since the normal method — air reconnaissance is impossible at best given the cloud cover and weather.

This is where social media has come to the rescue. Given wireless networks, and the proliferation of social media and phone cameras, pockets of stranded people, were able to communicate with the Army, through Whatsapp messages as well as through uploads on Twitter, Facebook and other social media websites. As a result, what we had was the Army using satellite phones to communicate with each other, but basing its rescue efforts almost entirely on Whatsapp and Twitter. In that sense Whatsapp effectively replaced the search helicopter, the emergency beacon and the communications network of the valley.

Did the Army in any way promote or place advertisements advertising their work? Yet, would some gratitude be out of place? Do these outlets of information still the threats made by then Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde in February 2014 that he would “crush them”?

Then, we have the role of Indian industry — which no media outlet bothered covering — which mobilised its own resources to complement and supplement the aid effort. Lets take just one company — Reliance — run supposedly by “banias” that Kashmiris want to protect themselves from through Article 370. In some locations like Hazratbal, Sumbal, and Rainawari, to name just a few, Reliance relief teams arrived before

anyone else. This same company that is not allowed to acquire any business interest in Kashmir, distributed more than 30,000 food packs each containing 18kg of food materials and 10,000 solar lamps. It held medical camps that have already served around 15,000 and it plans to expand services to 50,000 more.

The Political Crisis in Pakistan: Are There Any Victors?

Author: Ms. Ramya PS
October 7, 2014 

The positive assumptions and analysis carried out following the 2013 elections regarding the growing powers of the civilian regime in the still fledgling democracy of Pakistan seem to be ebbing away. Despite the ‘success’ of the first transfer of power from one civilian government to another, recent events have highlighted the fact that the power of the Pakistani Army remains central.

The sudden outpouring of protests in the streets of Islamabad led by Imran Khan and Tahir-ul Qadri, demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister has been criticised for many reasons. From allegations of being backed by the Army to using unconstitutional means to weaken the civilian government, the protests have thrown open the eternal dilemma of civil-military relations within Pakistan. What remains the major issue is how the bargaining games and power play dynamics shift in light of these protests.

Protesting What?

When the protests began on 14th August, signals of impending political instability began doing the rounds. The two groups of protesters led by Imran Khan of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Qadri of Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT) although independent of each other, seem to be protesting on a similar plank­­ — for the ouster of Nawaz Sharif. The former’s demands include resignation of PM Sharif over allegations of rigging of the 2013 elections and call for fresh elections while the latter has had a history of protesting against civilian governments, demanding a ‘revolution’ and implementation of the first 40 Articles of the constitution.

The prelude to the protests began with Qadri’s impending return to Pakistan from Canada. In light of the previous protest led by Qadri last year against the Zardari government, the present government sought to obstruct his return. The ensuing clashes between the PAT supporters and the police led to the death of at least elven people in Model Town in Lahore. This paved way for Qadri to march towards Islamabad and question the authority of PM Sharif. Meanwhile, Imran Khan announced his decision to launch a mass protest against the government which would commence on Pakistan’s Independence Day.

The protests garnered high level of media coverage and the demand for the Prime Minister’s resignation grew stronger. Although, the number of protesters from both PTI and PAT has been debatable ranging from 20,000 to 30,000 and some estimations going up to 60,000, the larger perception is that it is too little to stir the level of instability it has. The protests have continued for over six weeks and Khan has continued with his ‘sit-in’ protests in Islamabad despite falling short on funds.

The basis of Khan’s protest— alleged rigging of the 2013 elections is flimsy at best. After nearly a year since the elections, having won 33 seats in the National Assembly and forming a government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the sudden need for protesting against the government at the center brings into question the motives behind the protest. Although, Khan’s agenda is questionable, the allegations of nepotism and corruption against Sharif’s government are relevant. The number of family members holding high-level portfolios coupled with corruption charges do not place Sharif’s government in good light.

Pakistan’s polity leaves much to be desired in terms of improving the democratic ethos in the country

However, the content of Khan’s vindictive speeches against Sharif, who still is an elected representative and enjoys a majority in Parliament, indicates that Pakistan’s polity leaves much to be desired in terms of improving the democratic ethos in the country. Moreover, by not allowing the police to use violent means against the protestors and looking into the Model Town case, Sharif left the protestors with fewer reasons to protest. However, a recent clash between PTI protestors and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) at Wazirabad has led to PM Sharif facing more criticism from his opponents. While Imran Khan has been expanding his protests to Mianwali and Larkana, Qadri has followed suite and decided to hold protests in Faisalabad and in Lahore. 

As the debate on the success/failure of the anti-government protests of PTI and PAT continues, what is crucial to analyse is if the modality of operation of the Pakistani Army has changed in dealing with civilian regimes?

Contemplating the Past and Present: Coups in Pakistan

Military coups have formed an essential part of Pakistan’s history. Even prior to General Ayub Khan’s bid to power the power of the Pakistani Army grew steadily. This is seen in the case of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy which sought to overthrow the Liaquat Ali government. Although, the conspiracy has been linked to the communist elements within Pakistan, several Army officers including Major General Akbar Khan and others were involved. Furthermore, the growth of Major General Iskander Mirza, the first president of Pakistan who was later ousted by Commander-in-Chief Ayub Khan depicts how power struggles leading to coups are common to the political fabric of Pakistan.

Hong Kong Frowns on Red Line

By Jayadeva Ranade
11th October 2014 

With student leaders deciding to commence talks with the Hong Kong authorities following warnings by Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, who set a deadline for dawn on Monday, October 6, the large-scale protests that had disrupted normal life in Hong Kong’s Central, Mongkok and Tsim Sha Tsui districts began to dissipate. Amid mounting pressure from Beijing, Leung Chun-ying had earlier warned that law and order could deteriorate beyond control if the protests continued.

The demonstrations, which attracted up to 200,000 people on October 4, were led mainly by students who had criticised Leung Chun-ying and his daughter in web posts and the Facebook and demanded his resignation. Separately, basing its report on an anonymous tip an Australian newspaper claimed Australian engineering company UGL had secretly agreed to pay Leung Chun-ying before he was appointed chief executive over US$ 7 million for lobbying activities.

It is ironic that Hong Kong, which as a Crown Colony did not have the semblance of democracy, was first granted democratic rights by China in the 1990s under the Basic Law. This included the commitment that Hong Kong would elect its chief executive in 2017 through universal suffrage. The Basic Law additionally specified that nomination of candidates would be a matter for a nominating committee. These provisions embodied the concept of “one country, two systems” under which Hong Kong would maintain its distinctive legal and political system for 50 years, while at the same time being clearly subject to Chinese sovereignty.

The protest demonstrations, soon dubbed the “Umbrella Revolution”, were triggered by Beijing’s decision that a committee approved by China would select a panel of candidates from which Hong Kong residents could choose their chief executive. Long suspicious of Hong Kong’s potential as a base for anti-China activities, including the smuggling of Bibles into China, Beijing viewed the protests with concern and feared the possibility of their spilling over into cities in mainland China and fuelling anti-China sentiments among Tibetans and the already restive Uyghur ethnic minority. Exiled Uyghur leader and president of the World Uyghur Congress Rebiya Kadeer’s remark that the protests were “very inspiring” to Uyghurs and that “If Hong Kong wins, it will benefit Uighurs as well, and then the Uighurs can strengthen their own movement” must have added to Beijing’s concern.

Reports suggest at least 20 people in various cities and provinces like Beijing, Shanghai, Hunan, Guangzhou, Jiangsu and Shenzhen were either detained, or had restrictions imposed, for circulating reports or posting photographs of the protests in Hong Kong. While the Chinese media was careful in its reporting of the protests and published no photographs, Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America did slip through the firewall and reach audiences in China via TV and radio on the Telstar 18 satellite and online. According to RFA, its reports included listener feedback from Tibetan and Uyghur regions and web traffic through China and Internet anti-censorship proxies surged over 60 percent.

Meanwhile, signs of Hong Kong’s security authorities tightening control were soon visible. Diplomats in Hong Kong received a written communication from China’s foreign affairs ministry advising them to avoid interacting with protesters as it would be tantamount to interference in China’s internal affairs. Public security personnel visited the home in China of Xiaobo Yu, a Chinese student studying in Hong Kong whose article supporting the protests was published. Chinese authorities also reportedly stepped up the scrutiny of funding received by organisations from foreign sources. Interestingly, the US Congress-funded National Democratic Institute for International Affairs has given US$460,000 to “political institutions” in Hong Kong to “foster awareness” and encourage “students and citizens to explore possible reforms leading to universal suffrage”. Hinting at the involvement of “foreign forces”, some sections of the Chinese language media in Hong Kong mentioned all the leaders of the protests were Christians. The Chinese media in Hong Kong particularly highlighted that over half the territory’s population, including businessmen suffering losses because of the demonstrations, didn’t support the protesters.

China's Hong Kong Nightmare Is Back

October 10, 2014 

The Hong Kong government’s decision to scuttle proposed talks with representatives from the protest movement could very well mark an important turning point. 

The Hong Kong government’s decision to scuttle proposed talks with representatives from the protest movement on the island that were originally scheduled to take place this weekend demonstrates just how uncertain, and potentially volatile, the situation there remains. Thus, this new development in what increasingly appears to be a long story is worthy of analysis, as it may prove to be an important turning point in this round of the conflict.

Earlier in the week, when talks were announced, they had the effect of taking quite a bit of air out of the protest movement’s collective balloon. In other words, even as some expressed skepticism about the sincerity of the offer, the initial announcement was seen by most as a way out of the dangerous impasse the two sides had reached. Most signs in the streets came down, and it seemed like it was time for everyone to go home.

With the threat of mass demonstrations dissipating, the bargaining position of Beijing and local Hong Kong officials vis-à-vis the protesters appeared to be strengthened. It is possible to surmise that this gave the powers that be the confidence to feel that they could now pull a bait and switch on the talks themselves. In short, this would seem to be a move of rather acute political gamesmanship.

However, such an interpretation of events suggests a level of policy coordination and cooperation, not to mention strategic foresight, that strikes me as quite extraordinary. Hong Kong is in the place it now finds itself because of policy dysfunction within the Special Autonomous Region, and heavy-handedness from Beijing, not due to adroit maneuvering by either party.

Is it possible that those in power have now become such skilled operatives that they can game out such a complex and unfolding set of variables? It is relatively safe to assume this is not the case. On the contrary, the abrupt policy reversals, shifts and inconsistencies in policy making are more the result of divisions and differences within the halls of power over in both Hong Kong and Beijing over how to handle the protests. Such infighting is then producing not a brilliant manipulation of the protest movement, but instead an incredibly confounding approach to the situation on the ground. In other words, policy is more a case of going left then right, forward then back, zigzagging to and fro, than it is one of an intricate, well-thought-out play. It more resembles the actions of the fabled keystone cops than those of thoughtful strategists.

This being the case, one might insist that there is, indeed, a degree of policy coordination, not dysfunction, in the decision to torpedo talks before they even begin. Within such a frame, it may also be argued that such a decision was a wise move on the part of the Hong Kong government. However, the short-term benefit of pulling the protests back from the brink earlier this week will be far outweighed by the long-term costs of an even greater erosion of trust on the part of the Hong Kong people toward those who govern them. It is certain to leave those who had already turned against the political power structure even more disaffected and less likely to compromise the next time that temperatures rise, while also generating broader sympathy for the protesters among the wider Hong Kong population. Reneging on the commitment to talks is then a move that could easily backfire.

OCT. 9, 2014

U.S. Opposing China’s Answer to World Bank

A freight train hauling coal in Shanxi Province. China has been lobbying neighbors to establish a new regional development bank. Creditvia Associated Press

BEIJING — For almost a year, China has been pitching an idea to its neighbors in Asia: a big, internationally funded bank that would offer quick financing for badly needed transportation, telecommunications and energy projects in underdeveloped countries across the region.

With the public backing of President Xi Jinping and a pledge from Beijing to contribute much of the $50 billion in initial capital, the plan could be seen as an answer to critics who have long argued that China should take on greater responsibilities as a world power. But the United States, perhaps the most vocal of such critics, especially on issues such as climate change and arms proliferation, has not embraced the Chinese proposal.

Instead, in quiet conversations with China’s potential partners, American officials have lobbied against the development bank with unexpected determination and engaged in a vigorous campaign to persuade important allies to shun the project, according to senior United States officials and representatives of other governments involved.

The dispute, the latest manifestation of Chinese-American competition in Asia, could escalate in coming weeks, as Beijing pushes to confirm South Korea and Australia as founding partners of the bank in time for Mr. Xi to formally announce it at a summit meeting of Asian leaders in November. President Obama is scheduled to attend the meeting, and Washington is pressing the two countries to reject the Chinese plan.

Beijing has asked dozens of nations to contribute funds to the bank, which it calls the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and hopes it will become a global institution that rivals the World Bank. To give it broader scope, the Chinese have invited and won the support of some wealthy Middle East nations, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia. But if Washington persuades South Korea and Australia to abstain, it would all but ensure membership in the bank would be limited to smaller countries, depriving it of the prestige and respectability the Chinese seek.

The United States Treasury Department has criticized the bank as a deliberate effort to undercut the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, international financial institutions established after World War II that are dominated by the United States and Japan, senior South Korean and Australian officials said. Washington also sees the bank as a political tool for China to pull countries in Southeast Asia closer to its orbit, a soft-power play that promises economic benefits while polishing its image among neighbors anxious about its territorial claims.

Xi Jinping’s First Real Crisis: The Hong Kong Challenge

October 10, 2014 

"For Xi Jinping, the onset of major demonstrations in China’s premier financial center constitutes a major potential challenge to his rule."

As the world turned its eyes to the mass protests in Hong Kong, it focused primarily on how the territory will elect its chief executive. The people who have taken to the streets of Hong Kong’s central business and government districts are ostensibly protesting Beijing’s decision to dictate the slate of candidates for which the citizenry of Hong Kong may cast their vote.

But such a framework is far too narrow. It implies that, if only some solution could be found to the issue of selecting a slate of candidates, all would be easily resolved. In reality, the situation is more complex for Hong Kong than just the matter of selecting a chief executive (although this is, in fact, a major issue). It is also complex for China, presenting Xi Jinping with his first real crisis since taking office.

Deteriorating Relations

When Hong Kong reverted from British control to Chinese in 1997, the territory was clearly economically superior to its larger neighbor. As of1996, Hong Kong was: 

the world’s seventh largest trading entity and seventh largest stock market 

the world’s fifth largest banking center in terms of external financial transactions and fifth largest foreign exchange market in terms of average daily turnover 

the world’s fourth leading source of foreign direct investment 

the world’s busiest container port, and 

one of the world’s most prosperous economies, with per capita GDP of US$24,500 comparable to all but the wealthiest industrial countries. 

Since then, Hong Kong’s preeminence has receded, in no small part because of the relative gains made by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Whereas in 1997, Hong Kong’s GDP was 18 percent that of China’s (despite a population that was only 0.5 percent of the mainland’s), today the territory’s economic output is only 3 percent of China’s GDP. While Hong Kong’s GDP per capita remains substantially higher than China’s ($38,000 to $6,800), the gap has been narrowing there as well.

As important, the gap between the two societies has also shrunk. As China’s middle class has grown, the demand for higher end goods and services has also increased. This, in turn, has led more and more mainland Chinese to see Hong Kong as a shopping and services destination—at times to the detriment of the local population.

For the last several years, for example, a growing number of mainland Chinese have visited Hong Kong essentially as medical tourists. Wealthier Chinese women go to Hong Kong hospitals to give birth. Their children, being born in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), receive a HKSAR passport, which entitles them to live and work there. (The children may also not be counted against the one-child limit.) These amounted to some 44,000 births in 2013, accounting for perhaps half of all births in Hong Kong hospitals. This, in turn, has imposed significant stress on maternity wards and hospital facilities.

Why the US Is Trying to Squash China's New Development Bank

October 10, 2014

The U.S. has been lobbying Asian nations to persuade them to reject China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. 

The U.S. has been working behind the scenes to kill a Chinese proposal for a regional infrastructure bank in Asia, according to the New York Times.

As The Diplomat has reported in the past, Beijing is quietly lobbying Asian nations to sign onto its proposed new regional development bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). China views the AIIB as a way to diminish the regional influence of the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB), where countries like the United States and Japan hold substantial sway. By offering to provide most of the $50 billion in start-up funding, Beijing is hoping to get smaller and medium-sized nations in Asia to sign onto a bank where it will call the shots.

The New York Times reports, however, that the U.S. has also been lobbying the same Asian nations in an effort to persuade them not to sign onto the Chinese proposal. Citing senior U.S. officials and other representatives from Asian governments, the report says, “In quiet conversations with China’s potential partners, American officials have lobbied against the development bank with unexpected determination and engaged in a vigorous campaign to persuade important allies to shun the project.”

The report goes on to name South Korea and Australia as the two most important nations America and China are trying to woo. Beijing is hoping to get Canberra and Seoul to sign on as founding members of the AIIB in time for Xi Jinping to announce it at the APEC summit in Beijing next month. U.S. officials are lobbying South Korea and Australia to ensure that doesn’t happen.

“If Washington persuades South Korea and Australia to abstain,” the report notes, “it would all but ensure membership in the bank would be limited to smaller countries, depriving it of the prestige and respectability the Chinese seek.”

The New York Times finds it ironic that America is trying to squash the Chinese bank. As the report notes, the U.S. has long been one of the loudest voices in calling on China to take on a greater role in global affairs. But now that China is starting to act the part of a great power with initiatives like the AIIB, the U.S. is trying to undercut its efforts.

‘Today’s Hong Kong, Tomorrow’s Taiwan?’ Nope, the Other Way Around.

By Charles I-hsin Chen
October 10, 2014

They have completely different backgrounds, but there are lessons for Hong Kong in Taiwan. 

Discussions surrounding the protests for universal suffrage in Hong Kong have led some people to argue “Today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan.” This sentiment is noticed especially amongst some pro-independence Taiwanese or foreign supporters hostile to mainland China.

This argument suggests that Beijing’s suppression of democracy in Hong Kong will be applied to Taiwan if it makes more concessions to the mainland. Yet comparing Taiwan and Hong Kong’s democracy is like comparing apples and oranges.

In other words, significant differences make the comparison almost impossible and meaningless.

In 1997, the former British crown colony of Hong Kong became a Chinese special administrative zone (SAZ) guarded by the People’s Liberation Army. A 1,200 member election committee chooses its chief executive, while the power to interpret the Basic Law of Hong Kong is in the hands of the National People’s Congress in Beijing.

By contrast, the Republic of China (Taiwan) has never been governed by the Chinese Communist Party. Taiwanese people elect their president and national legislature, serve in their military forces, and have the full power of interpretation over their Constitution.

Hong Kong had no choice but to give in to the “one country, two systems” scheme promised by Beijing leaders in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984. Taiwan has never accepted such a status, as President Chiang Ching-kuo rejected it out of hand in 1982 when it was first proposed by Deng Xiaoping.

Ever since then, Chiang’s stance has been firmly upheld by his Kuomintang (KMT) successors. The main reason is that the core values of the KMT – the Three Principles of the People, written by the party founder Sun Yat-sen and aimed at building a state of the people, by the people and for the people – are simply not compatible with the doctrines of communism. This too explains why President Ma Ying-jeou gave a quick but negative response to his mainland counterpart last month when President Xi Jinping proposed “one country, two systems” to Taiwan for the first time since the latter’s inauguration in March 2013.

Meanwhile, another discouraging reality for Xi is that more than 80 percent of Taiwanese people also reject the idea. Over the past two decades dozens of polls have shown that more than 80 percent of Taiwanese people support maintaining the status quo rather than accepting reunification with the mainland under the “one country, two systems” scheme.

But the biggest difference between Hong Kong and Taiwan is their approach toward democracy.


October 9, 2014 

The recent gains in Iraq’s Anbar province by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have, justifiably, garnered a great deal of media attention. McClatchy noted on October 3 that following the group’s gain of several cities in Anbar, its fighters had now “become a major presence in Abu Ghraib, the last Anbar town on the outskirts of the capital.” Based on these advances, International Business Times openlywondered if ISIL was close enough to attack Baghdad. However, Western media coverage lacks the analytic usefulness of Arabic-language sources for discerning the story behind ISIL’s recent victories.

ISIL’s Anbar advance illustrates some of the group’s strengths, but the group remains vulnerable in many important ways. The group’s recent success in Anbar can be attributed primarily to one exceptional field commander and ISIL official, Abu Umar al-Shishani, who executed a series of brilliant tactical maneuvers. But Shishani’s leadership could not save them from setbacks elsewhere in Iraq. And even the group’s much-publicized advance on the northern Syrian town of Kobane, though it represents a real gain of territory, represents a strategically questionable decision. ISIL is a highly competent fighting force, especially when Shishani is the one giving orders, that continues to make significant strategic errors. This article provides a granular look at ISIL’s Anbar offensive.

The Islamic State: Losing Ground Before the Anbar Offensive

Shishani’s presence in southern Salahaddin/eastern Anbar has been highlighted in Iraqi press reporting, which noted that he personally assumed command of ISIL fighters in the vicinity of Duluiyah. In that area of operation, the local Juburi tribe has been fighting alongside the Iraqi security forces in opposition to ISIL.

Shishani—born Tarkhan Batirashvili—is a young field commander, just twenty-eight years old. As his names suggests, he is of Chechen origin and was bornin Georgia’s Pankisi Valley. He served in an intelligence unit in the Georgian army, and the Wall Street Journal reports in a profile of the young militant that in the 2008 conflict with Russia he “was near the front line, spying on Russian tank columns and relaying their coordinates to Georgian artillery units.” However, in 2010 Shishani was diagnosed with tuberculosis and ultimately discharged from military service. The Journal’s profile of Shishani noted that after being imprisoned for sixteen months for illegally harboring weapons (seemingly due to his support for Chechen jihadist groups), Shishani promptly left Georgia. He resurfaced in Syria in 2013, leading a group called The Army of Emigrants and Partisans.

Salahaddin-Anbar was not Shishani’s first choice for a major offensive. In early September, he was devising plans to overwhelm the main Syrian regime garrison in Dayr al-Zawr, which would have served as a sequel to ISIL’s victory at the Battle of Tabqa in August 2014 that secured a significant haul of weaponry, equipment, and armored vehicles from the Syrian military. A victory in Dayr al-Zawr would have completed ISIL’s control of that Syrian province, served as a huge propaganda victory, and also connected all of ISIL’s holdings from Raqqah to the Iraqi town of Anah. But it seems that ISIL’s self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, instead prioritized his current genocidal, and strategically questionable, campaign against the Kurds in Ayn al-Arab/Kobane. Following this reprioritization, Shishani ended up focusing his efforts on Anbar province.

After the Islamic State lost ground in Haditha, there were serious encroachments against ISIL positions in Anah. One challenge ISIL faced was that the Hamza Battalion—a tribal militia organized by the Albu Mahal tribe that fought al-Qaeda in Iraq from 2005 to 2007—had been revived for similar purposes. There was thus good reason for Shishani to want to shore up ISIL’s forces in Anbar. The most telling indicator of ISIL’s weakened status was itsexpulsion from Karmah district of Anbar by Jaysh al-Mujahideen, an Iraqi salafist group led by the al-Qaeda loyalist Abdullah Janabi.

New Silk Roads

A spectre haunts the fast-aging “New American Century”: the possibility of a future Beijing-Moscow-Berlin strategic trade and commercial alliance. Its likelihood is being seriously discussed, and viewed with interest in New Delhi, and Tehran

A spectre haunts the fast-aging “New American Century”: the possibility of a future Beijing-Moscow-Berlin strategic trade and commercial alliance. Let’s call it the BMB.

Its likelihood is being seriously discussed at the highest levels in Beijing and Moscow, and viewed with interest in Berlin, New Delhi, and Tehran. But don’t mention it inside Washington’s Beltway or at NATO headquarters in Brussels. There, the star of the show today and tomorrow is the new Osama bin Laden: Caliph Ibrahim, aka Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the elusive, self-appointed beheading prophet of a new mini-state and movement that has provided an acronym feast—ISIS/ISIL/IS—for hysterics in Washington and elsewhere. 

No matter how often Washington remixes its Global War on Terror, however, the tectonic plates of Eurasian geopolitics continue to shift, and they’re not going to stop just because American elites refuse to accept that their historically brief “unipolar moment” is on the wane. For them, the closing of the era of “full spectrum dominance,” as the Pentagon likes to call it, is inconceivable. After all, the necessity for the indispensable nation to control all space—military, economic, cultural, cyber, and outer—is little short of a religious doctrine. Exceptionalist missionaries don’t do equality. At best, they do “coalitions of the willing” like the one crammed with “over 40 countries” assembled to fight ISIS/ISIL/IS and either applauding (and plotting) from the sidelines or sending the odd plane or two toward Iraq or Syria.

NATO, which unlike some of its members won’t officially fight Jihadistan, remains a top-down outfit controlled by Washington. It’s never fully bothered to take in the European Union (EU) or considered allowing Russia to “feel” European. As for the Caliph, he’s just a minor diversion. A postmodern cynic might even contend that he was an emissary sent onto the global playing field by China and Russia to take the eye of the planet’s hyperpower off the ball.

Divide and Isolate

So how does full spectrum dominance apply when two actual competitor powers, Russia and China, begin to make their presences felt? Washington’s approach to each—in Ukraine and in Asian waters—might be thought of as divide and isolate.

In order to keep the Pacific Ocean as a classic “American lake,” the Obama administration has been “pivoting” back to Asia for several years now. This has involved only modest military moves, but an immodest attempt to pit Chinese nationalism against the Japanese variety, while strengthening alliances and relations across Southeast Asia with a focus on South China Sea energy disputes. At the same time, it has moved to lock a future trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), in place.

In Russia’s western borderlands, the Obama administration has stoked the embers of regime change in Kiev into flames (fanned by local cheerleaders Poland and the Baltic nations) and into what clearly looked, to Vladimir Putin and Russia’s leadership, like an existential threat to Moscow. Unlike the U.S., whose sphere of influence (and military bases) are global, Russia was not to retain any significant influence in its former near abroad, which, when it comes to Kiev, is not for most Russians, “abroad” at all.

For Moscow, it seemed as if Washington and its NATO allies were increasingly interested in imposing a new Iron Curtain on their country from the Baltic to the Black Sea, with Ukraine simply as the tip of the spear. In BMB terms, think of it as an attempt to isolate Russia and impose a new barrier to relations with Germany. The ultimate aim would be to split Eurasia, preventing future moves toward trade and commercial integration via a process not controlled through Washington.

From Beijing’s point of view, the Ukraine crisis was a case of Washington crossing every imaginable red line to harass and isolate Russia. To its leaders, this looks like a concerted attempt to destabilize the region in ways favorable to American interests, supported by a full range of Washington’s elite from neocons and Cold War “liberals” to humanitarian interventionists in the Susan Rice and Samantha Power mold. Of course, if you’ve been following the Ukraine crisis from Washington, such perspectives seem as alien as any those of any Martian. But the world looks different from the heart of Eurasia than it does from Washington—especially from a rising China with its newly minted “Chinese dream” (Zhongguo meng).

The U.S. Air Campaign Against ISIS Is Much Bigger Than You Think

October 8, 2014

To date, there have been approximately 240 coalition air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria since air operations began nearly a month ago. On the first night of operations against ISIS in Syria, the U.S. put most of its best assets into the fight, employing more than 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles along with F-22 Raptors, F-15 Strike Eagles, F-16s, B-1 bombers, EA-18G Growler electronic warfare planes and drones. U.S. Navy F/A-18E/Fs and coalition partners including the U.K., France, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE and Qatar have participated in air operations too.

According to reports from a variety of sources, the air strikes already have had a noticeable impact on ISIS operations. The threat of U.S. air attacks alone caused ISIS to evacuate a number of fixed facilities and disperse their assets. ISIS is no longer moving in large convoys and are having difficulty concentrating forces to continue its operations in Iraq.

Still, this doesn’t seem like much for the U.S. military, which along with many of the same partners routinely conducted more than a thousand air strikes a day during the other two wars in Iraq in 1991 and 2003. Granted, the number of aircraft committed to this operation is just a fraction of what was available to air war planners in the past. For example, there is just a single U.S. aircraft carrier, the George H.W. Bush, operating in the Arabian Gulf whereas in 2003 the U.S. Navy employed a total of six.

What goes underreported and, hence, underappreciated, is the magnitude of the overall air operation being conducted in support of or in addition to the actual air strikes against targets on the ground. Simply put, behind every successful air strike is a massive supporting infrastructure of aircraft, ground operations and planning activities. Air strikes are not conducted in isolation. Every strike package consists not only of bomb-carrying aircraft but others providing the protection, electronic warfare support, aerial refueling, battle space management and intelligence. The 240 strikes in Iraq and Syria were supported by some 3,800 aircraft sorties, 1,700 tanker flights and over 700 ISR sorties. There have also been thousands of flights by transport aircraft, C-17s and C-130s making up the largest fraction, providing humanitarian relief but also moving personnel and essential supplies into the region.

General Who Championed Air Power Challenges Pentagon on ISIS

Oct. 9, 2014

Smoke rising from the Syrian town of Kobani Thursday marks where clashes between its Kurdish defenders and ISIS attackers are underway.Emin Menguarslan / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Architect of U.S. air war in Afghanistan says U.S. strikes too limited

Once a United States military effort bogs down, as is now happening in the battle for the Syrian border town of Kobani, two things happen: Pentagon officials explain why what is happening should come as no surprise, and experts carp about how it is a surprise and could be done better.

Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman,explained Wednesday why the U.S. and its allies are basically powerless to stop the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) from taking Kobani, which sits on Syria’s border with Turkey, and the 200,000 residents still living there. ISIS is now reported to control about a third of the town, half of whose population has fled to Turkey. “Airstrikes alone,” Kirby said, “are not going to . . . to save the town of Kobani.”

Them’s fighting words to air power advocates like David Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who ran the successful air campaign over Afghanistan in the opening months of the U.S. campaign there.

Deptula responded to Kirby’s comments in an overnight email from Australia:

The issue is not the limits of airpower, the issue is the ineffective use of airpower. According to [The Department of Defense's] own website, two B-1 sorties can deliver more ordnance than did all the strikes from the aircraft carrier Bush over the last six weeks. Two F-15E sorties alone are enough to handle the current average daily task load of airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria.

Wise analysts understand that those blaming airpower for not ‘saving Kobani’ are confusing the limits of ‘airpower’ with the sub-optimization of its application. One can see [ISIS] tanks and artillery . . . in the open on TV, yet the coalition forces for ‘Operation Un-named Effort’ are not hitting them. Airpower can hit those targets and many others, but those in charge of its application are not—that’s the issue—not the limits of airpower.

The airstrikes to date have been very closely controlled, tactical in nature, and reflect the way they have been ‘metered’ in Afghanistan. The process that is being used to apply airpower is excessively long and overly controlled at too high a command level. The situation in Iraq/Syria with [ISIS] is not the same as Afghanistan with the Taliban. What we are witnessing now is a symptom of fighting the last war by a command that is dominated with ground warfare officers who have little experience with applying airpower in anything other than a ‘support’ role.

The situation requires a holistic, complete, air campaign, not simply a set of ‘targeted strikes.’ It requires a well planned and comprehensive air campaign focusing on achieving desired effects at the operational and strategic levels of war.

The Diversity of Islam

OCT. 8, 2014

A few days ago, I was on a panel on Bill Maher’s television show on HBO thatbecame a religious war.

Whether or not Islam itself inspires conflict, debates about it certainly do. Our conversation degenerated into something close to a shouting match and went viral on the web. Maher and a guest, Sam Harris, argued that Islam is dangerous yet gets a pass from politically correct liberals, while the actor Ben Affleck denounced their comments as “gross” and “racist.” I sided with Affleck.

After the show ended, we panelists continued to wrangle on the topic for another hour with the cameras off. Maher ignited a debate that is rippling onward, so let me offer three points of nuance.

First, historically, Islam was not particularly intolerant, and it initially elevated the status of women. Anybody looking at the history even of the 20th century would not single out Islam as the bloodthirsty religion; it was Christian/Nazi/Communist Europe and Buddhist/Taoist/Hindu/atheist Asia that set records for mass slaughter.

Likewise, it is true that the Quran has passages hailing violence, but so does the Bible, which recounts God ordering genocides, such as the one against the Amalekites.

Second, today the Islamic world includes a strain that truly is disproportionately intolerant and oppressive. Barbarians in the Islamic State cite their faith as the reason for their monstrous behavior — most recentlybeheading a British aid worker devoted to saving Muslim lives — and give all Islam a bad name. Moreover, of the 10 bottom-ranking countries in the World Economic Forum’s report on women’s rights, nine are majority Muslim. In Afghanistan, Jordan and Egypt, more than three-quarters of Muslims favor the death penalty for Muslims who renounce their faith,according to a Pew survey.

The persecution of Christians, Ahmadis, Yazidis, Bahai — and Shiites — is far too common in the Islamic world. We should speak up about it.

Third, the Islamic world contains multitudes: It is vast and varied. Yes, almost four out of five Afghans favor the death penalty for apostasy, but most Muslims say that that is nuts. In Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, only 16 percent of Muslims favor such a penalty. In Albania, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan, only 2 percent or fewer Muslims favor it, according to the Pew survey.

Beware of generalizations about any faith because they sometimes amount to the religious equivalent of racial profiling. Hinduism contained both Gandhi and the fanatic who assassinated him. The Dalai Lama today is an extraordinary humanitarian, but the fifth Dalai Lama in 1660 ordered children massacred “like eggs smashed against rocks.”

Christianity encompassed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and also the 13th century papal legate who in France ordered the massacre of 20,000 Cathar men, women and children for heresy, reportedly saying: Kill them all; God will know his own.

One of my scariest encounters was with mobs of Javanese Muslims who were beheading people they accused of sorcery and carrying their heads on pikes. But equally repugnant was the Congo warlord who styled himself a Pentecostal pastor; while facing charges of war crimes, he invited me to dinner and said a most pious grace.