Chinese inroads

The new silk road is being built faster than the world’s ability to grasp its consequences.

China has worked out a railway route to Afghanistan and, from August this year, begun operating two trains a month from Nantong (China) to Hairatan (Afghanistan) passing through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan along the way. This remarkable achievement suffers from a temporary hitch — the trains have to go back empty to China because Uzbek authorities are yet to give permission for Afghan goods to transit their territory.

Last week, Chinese trucks drove south-west across the Himalayas, passing through the Karakorum pass into Pakistani territory. They transited through Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan before unloading their cargo onto a Chinese ship at the Chinese-built, Chinese-operated Pakistani port of Gwadar. [Gwadar is finally in Chinese hands, after Washington released its pressure on the Pakistani government due to an inability to persist or out of a lack of interest.]

On the eastern side of the Indian Ocean, analysts in Singapore are concerned over what appears to be a commercially dubious proposal to build a new port in the Malaysian town of Melaka (Malacca) that sits at the northern side of the important Straits of Malacca. The Malaysians have pulled out the stops to enable the project to take shape quickly. In typical fashion a little-known local firm is partnering a Chinese company to build the port.

Since there’s enough capacity in existing Malaysian ports, and it is relatively easy to expand them, the Melaka Gateway project is of questionable business value. But a foothold that commands the Straits, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean makes a lot of geostrategic sense if someone is willing to foot the $10 billion bill. And China is.

It appears that Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) is proceeding at a pace faster than the region’s policymakers can handle.

Connectionistan
Building transport connectivity in Central Asia is likely to unleash economic potential in the landlocked region, and depending on where the roads and railways lead, to other regions too. This will come with the usual political economy of Chinese overseas economic expansion: newly enriched local entrepreneurs, strengthened local political strongmen and grumblings due to Chinese labourers imported en mass. This will also be accompanied by fears of a demographic invasion from China into the sparsely populated Central Asian states.

The Chinese railway through the Central Asian states to Afghanistan presents India with a tantalising opportunity, if it were possible for Indian cargo and passengers to use the route. Pakistan would be deeply concerned, of course. Indeed, Pakistani strategists would already be worried that for the first time, China can trade with Afghanistan without having to transit through Pakistan.

New Delhi should explore arrangements with China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan to connect to this railway. At the very least, Beijing’s intentions can be put to test.

Another port in the straits
The Chinese interest in Melaka comes at a time when the United States is likely to rebuff the painfully negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership. Singapore, among other East Asian states will be unhappy with the turn of events. Another port along Malaysia’s west coast abutting the Malacca straits implies further competition to the island’s own ports. With the projected overcapacity, it gets worse.

While there is little New Delhi can do to ameliorate this, there is an emerging convergence of interests between India and Singapore. So too, we are likely to see, with other East Asian countries as they grapple with the undesirable prospect of having to jump onto the Chinese bandwagon given the increasing unreliability of the United States. This has been true for much of the past decade. Now, however, it has gotten all the more intense. The Modi government is clear that it seeks to engage East Asian states with greater boldness and purpose. Whether this will prove adequate or fast enough remains to be seen.

Where’s the quake information?

The Indian government must provide timely, accurate, accessible information on natural disasters

The Indian Ocean tsunami that resulted in the deaths of around 20,000 Indian citizens (and displacement of around 700,000) occurred less than five years ago. The human tragedy of the earthquakes in Kashmir (October 2005) and Gujarat (January 2001) are also relatively fresh in public memory. After these natural disasters you would have thought that the Indian government would be a little more active in disseminating timely, accurate and relevant information regarding seismic events. And you would be wrong.

The online edition of the Times of India reported a 7.6 magnitude earthquake off the coast of the Andaman islands at 7:55 UTC on 10th of August. It was a wire service report, quoting the US Geological Service (USGS). The USGS site provides a summary, measurement details, maps and other information, including a link to a tsunami alerts. Its Indian counterpart, in comparison, only showed a terse ‘preliminary’ report stating the location of the quake and its magnitude. Neither the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) nor the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) had any useful information about the nature of the quake and the risk of a tsunami.

There is, however, a ‘crowdsourced’ website that provides such information based on secondary (reported) information. The Amateur Seismic Centre is a commendable initiative, run by one Stacey Martin who started it in June 2000 as “a one-stop guide to earthquakes in India as well as south Asia.” It puts the Government of India to shame. (See its report on today’s quake)

The UPA government has shown itself adept at creating new bureaucracies after disaster strikes. It does not seem to be capable of doing the relatively trifling—but crucial and life-saving—things such disseminating timely information.

Update: Amit Varma wrote about last night: even the Indian mainstream media was late in reporting it.

Update: On 12th August, The Hindu reports that India’s National Tsunami Warning Centre had issued an alert six minutes after the quake. Why then didn’t the media pick it up, while they picked up the USGS report?

A naval standoff between Bangladesh and Burma

A new territorial dispute in the Bay of Bengal

The Burmese navy has withdrawn two of its warships from an area in the Bay of Bengal 50 nautical miles south-west of Bangladesh’s St Martin’s Island. Bangladesh is to withdraw its four ships after the intruding commercial gas exploration ships leave the scene. (via Information Dissemination)

It appears that the standoff ended without shots being fired. But not before a war of words.

Bangladesh’s foreign minister Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury said he had warned Myanmar’s envoy to Dhaka that “all steps would be taken to protect the sovereignty and territory of Bangladesh.” [AFP]

A senior official from Myanmar’s military government said they were open to talks, but insisted that oil and gas companies were operating inside their territory and far away from the disputed sea boundary. “We will try to solve this peacefully, but we are also ready to protect our country if needed … we will not tolerate being insulted, although we do want good will. We will continue with exploration,” [AFP]

How do you help a country like Burma?

The tricky business of delivering aid to victims of a natural disaster who are also victims of a repressive regime

A closed regime. Media controls. A category 4 cyclone. Damaged infrastructure. Broken communication links. Death toll first in the hundreds, rapidly upped to the tens of thousands.

From ReliefWebIt’s highly likely that the Burmese junta can’t cope with the disaster. Worse, its isolation is making a bad situation much worse. The international response is hobbled by the lack of communication channels, common frameworks and operating procedures.

India was among the first to respond. India’s military base at Port Blair, in the Andaman & Nicobar islands has some capacity address humanitarian disasters in the Bay of Bengal region. But while India dispatched INS Rana and INS Kirpan with emergency relief material—tents, medicine and food—the lack of communications (and previously agreed contingency plans) means that at the time of sailing, the ships didn’t quite know which port they could access.

The foreign ministry states that India is considering “further immediate relief and medical supplies, including by air”. Thailand is reportedly preparing to send supplies by air. Burma has also accepted Australian help. These responses will be constrained by Burma’s capacity to co-ordinate the use of its airspace, airports and landing strips. According to some weather reports, Cyclone Nargis could be followed by an even stronger cyclone, adding in a factor of urgency to this matter.

Ultimately, the delivery of relief supplies to the affected people depends largely on the Tatmadaw, Burma’s armed forces. The scheduled referendum introduces a political complication. That the junta is deeply unpopular is clear enough: but a botched response to the cyclone might well break the camel’s back. [Cyclone Bhola struck East Pakistan in late 1971, also ahead of elections, and set off a chain of events that led to the birth of Bangla Desh]

The problem is—the generals know this too. They could decide that the presence of foreign volunteers, media and military personnel is a risk to the survival of their regime, even if it means that the humanitarian response suffers as a result.

The toughest question for India and the rest of the world is should the world’s humanitarian response become an instrument to effect political change in Burma? For, isn’t releasing the Burmese people from the clutches of a brutal, repressive regime also, in the end, a humanitarian act? The answer is yes. As The Acorn has argued before, doing so is in India’s interests.

Related Links: NASA’s Earth Observatory has “before and after” images of the affected area; a briefing from the Global Disaster Alert and Co-ordination System