Some years ago, on a piece on the Afghan crisis I had written that Mullah Omar’s face bore no resemblance to that of the impossibly beautiful, albeit mythical, Helen of Troy. Yet it too had caused the launch of a thousand ships (airships to be more precise), just as Helen’s had done in Homer’s epic tale, the Iliad. Like Troy in that ancient narrative, Afghanistan of the present times was swarmed with invaders who could also be seen as the counterparts of those Greeks- the Americans and their NATO allies. This war lasted for double the time of the Trojan episode, twenty years instead of ten. At its end it led to a reverse situation, victory of the Trojans, in this case, of the Taliban. Though the Greeks destroyed Troy by the ruse of a gift of the Wooden Horse, eventually a Trojan warrior, Aeneid, sailed to southern Mediterranean and laid the foundation of the Rome and its empire. The Greek epoch ultimately yielded to the Roman age, and the annals of geopolitics of that time took a completely new turn. Will the impact of the Afghan war be the same? Shall we see a power transformation in a new paradigm from what we have at the present time? Will American predominance make way for a risen China, now or in the future?
It had been four long months since the meeting in Alaska between Chinese and American officials, their first interaction since President Joe Biden assumed office in January this year. That was when the Chinese Foreign policy top mandarins Yang Jiechi (Director, Central Foreign Affairs Commission) and Wang Yi (State Councillor and Foreign Minister) bitterly locked horns with the American top diplomats, Antony Blinken (Secretary of State) and Jake Sullivan (National Security Advisor) in Anchorage in intensely chilly circumstances. Bilateral relations remained pretty much frozen since. Both sides might have come around to the belief that a resumption of some level of contact was overdue. Not so much to bring about a thaw; rather, simply to test the water.
The China-US meeting in Alaska last week was an unmitigated disaster. It did not bridge any differences. On the contrary, it may have widened them. If the purpose of diplomacy is to keep the lines of dialogue and communications open through the understanding the protocols, traditions, and culture of the other side, this discussion provided little evidence of even a desire for success. The art of negotiation in the international arena provides a substantial lexicon of nuanced language to advance rewarding discourse. In Alaska, this lesson was ignored. Style and substance were in tatters. Repairs now seem an impossibility anytime soon.
China is on the roll. Already the second largest economy in the world, it is poised to become the first sooner than expected, possibly within this decade. Small wonder that the focus of the globe should be on the lianghui currently being held in Beijing. This is the ‘two sessions,’ China’s annual Parliamentary meeting. They entail back- to- back sessions of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the highest advisory body, and the National People’s Congress (NPC), the principal legislative forum. There might lack the scintillating repartees of a debate in the House of Commons, and the thrill of the Question hour in Commonwealth Parliaments. But nonetheless would have an enormous impact on the lives of global citizens, including the proverbial man on the Clapham omnibus. That is because the sessions provide an insight into the plans and aspirations of the world’s most rising power.
Bangladeshis at the present time share a modicum of justifiable pride in the fact that the world merits this country worth watching in terms of its economic potentials. To my mind , we have reached this stage for the following reasons: First, effective utilization of early foreign assistance; second a steady ,albeit sustained, move away from a near -socialistic to an open and liberal economy; third , a shift from agriculture to manufacturing as land-space shrank to accommodate urbanization; fourth , an unleashing of remarkable entrepreneurial spirit among private sector captains of industry, as evidenced in the Ready Made Garments industry: fifth, the prevalence of a vibrant civil society intellectually aiding the social transformation with its focus on health, education, and gender issues: and finally ,a long period of political stability notwithstanding the traditional predilections of Bengali socio-political activism.
President Joseph Biden of the United states and President Vladimir Putin of Russia vide a telephone talk have agreed to extend the New Start treaty beyond the expiry date of 5th February of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty or New-START by another five years. By ageing to do so, President Biden was reversing the decision of his predecessor, President Donald Trump. It is actually the only remaining agreement that curtails US and Russian nuclear forces.
So, who or what was Oscar Fingal Flahertie Wills Wilde? Was he a poet, a prose-smith, a playwright, a classicist, a raconteur, a poseur, an aphorist, or simply a sensation for his, or may be for all, times? He was all of those, and much else besides. He was a lord of language, known for his bitingly witty dialogue and epigrammatic banter, flamboyant dress and glittering conversation. To London’s Victorian society he was both a bright boy in a man’s body, albeit with an intellect of stupendous heights, as well as a thoughtful prophet wrapping profundity in dazzling verbal giftwrap. To discuss his writings, the Dhaka -based “The Reading Circle” held a Webinar ably moderated by Professor Niaz Zaman. The participants -Syed Badrul Ahsan, Tazeen Murshid, Nusrat Haque, Ameenah Ahmed, Tanveerul Haque, Zakia Rahman, Zobaida Latif, and myself -all of us drawn from such different corners of the globe as London, Brussels, Singapore and Dhaka, made presentations. This article is based on my remarks made on that occasion.
The US residential polls are akin to a drama that is staged every four years in which the American are actors on stage and the rest of the world is the audience. With one major difference, however. While in a usual theatrical performance the viewers are there mostly for amusement, though some may be enlightened and enriched by the experience, in the case of the US elections, unlike in others, their fates are inextricably linked to the outcome of the play. This is not predetermined by any playwright, though it can often be predicted. It is not implausible therefore for some on-lookers to want to intervene in what’s happening onstage. It must be done discreetly, and with great circumspection. Take for instance, the Russians in the American elections in 2016. The Russians and President Donald Trump hotly dispute allegations of any such interference.
The Maldives is a picturesque country of merely 515,000 people located just beyond the southern tip of the South Asian land mass, in an idyllic Indian ocean setting. The nation is spread across 26 pretty atolls, comprising about 1192 islets, not all still inhabited. These are lapped by crystal blue waters containing flora and fauna of remarkable magnificence. Its scenic bounties attract droves of tourists who frolic in the sands, sun and the sea in salubrious languor. It has a thriving fishing, garment and tourism industry which have recently helped it graduate out of the United Nations list of Least Developed Countries (LDCs).It is so tiny that used to be said that the catch of a single large fish any day could cause a remarkable jump in its Gross National Product (GDP) numbers. It is not without reason that the archipelago has often been compared to a paradise.
There is not much good news for President Donald Trump of the United States these days. If electoral polls have any credibility, he is staring at the face of almost certain defeat in the elections come November. So, when the so-called Abraham Accord between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was sealed in a telephone call between him and the leaders of Israel and the UAE, signalling a sliver of silver lining in the otherwise hovering dark clouds over him, Trump was ecstatic. A Trump twitter called it a “HUGE breakthrough among “three GREAT friends!”.
Sri Lanka is a country endowed with abundant natural beauty. The serenity of its geographical bounties matched the peaceful nature of its polity in the aftermath of the passage of power to local political leaders with the withdrawal of the British from the island in 1948. Its Constitution was crafted by some of the brightest legal minds of the British Commonwealth. The nation seemed well on the path to prosperity and progress. So much so, that once Lee Kuan Yew looked upon that country as a model for Singapore, with its commonly shared experience, to emulate.
President Jimmy Carter of the United States had once paid Iran glowing tributes, which was received quite normally in American policy circles and raised no eyebrows: He had said: “(Iran was) an island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world”. In one of the weirdest ironies of history, within months in 1979, with the Iranian Revolution, the perception of Iran in American eyes underwent a most radical transformation. It was followed by the hostage-taking of American diplomats, and a nose-diving of bilateral relations. Since 1980 there have been no diplomatic connections. However, over the years a kind of modus vivendi had evolved, a grudging tolerance of each other accompanied by some functional interactions. Eventually, in 2015, the US along with key European States entered into what was called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), virtually capping Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and largely stabilizing the relationship.
On the first Sunday of July, there was an important telephone call between the Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi and the Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Duval. Some important decisions were announced thereafter. This is not to say that these were the outcome of that interaction only. For weeks the militaries of both China and India and their diplomats had been negotiating on the grounds of the disputed territory along the Line of actual Control at the Galwan Valley, as well as through other channels to end the bloodiest border stand-off between the two Asian powers that had lasted two months. True, while not a bullet was fired in anger, troops had battled with sticks and stones that left twenty Indian soldiers dead and, reportedly, an unknown number of Chinese casualties. Indeed, it appeared that the two sides, who had fought a war in the Himalayas in 1962, was yet again on the brink of a possible war.
Singaporeans went to polls on Friday the 10th of July. It was a crisis election, seen as the most significant since the country’s independence in 1965, given the backdrop of the COVID 19 pandemic and its massive negative impact on the economy on this small but wealthy island republic. Out of a population of nearly 5.85 million on election day, the number of registered voters stood at 2.65 million. It was no surprise that in a nation with a reputation of unmatchable discipline, the voting was an orderly process. In conformity with rules each voter was masked, safe distancing was scrupulously maintained, and their hands were sanitized as they entered the booths. The elderly, who needed it, were provided assistance. The electorate returned what has been assessed as a sophisticated, calibrated and mature outcome. It re-elected the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP) to power with a sufficiently strong enough mandate to help it pull the nation out of the crisis. At the same time, it also created a diversity in the legislature that would ensure that the government did not have a blank cheque for unrestricted authority.
William Somerset Maugham was already an established author when he began to focus on short stories. His interest in this genre was actually meant to have been a form of relief from novel-writing, but interestingly it was this literary form that rendered him more famous in the East. Though intensely English in attitudes and behaviour, he was not quite a ‘legit Brit’. Born in Paris (in 1874), he learnt to speak in French before he spoke English, spent some time studying at Heidelberg Germany, before continuing further education in England, then settled down in the south of France. Having written a few novels, he turned to short stories. Perhaps due to his cosmopolitan exposure, he was deeply influenced, in his short stories, by foreign writers. In particular, the Russian author Chekov and the Frenchman Guy de Maupassant.
President Donald Trump has got himself a wall. But it is not the one of his choosing, as one on the Mexican border. It is on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC, a high fence that now separates him from his people. But as polls for him keep dipping, and the prognosis for a victory in the upcoming November elections keep worsening, a prediction from an unlikely person should bring him cheer. The source is none other than the Foreign Minister of a country that Trump considers to be in the forefront of his list of foes: Javad Zareef of Iran. I have known Zareef and worked with him as a fellow diplomat for years and would rate him as a person of extraordinary intellect. Speaking at an interview on Instagram with an Iranian journalist Farid Modaressi, Zareef stated that despite all that is happening, Trump’s support base of 30 to 35 percent has not moved , and till that occurs, he still has over 50 percent chances of re-election. Zareef did not elaborate if he himself would prefer such an outcome, calculating that four more years of America with Trump at its helm , might eliminate that nation totally from the global power scene, which for Zareef and Iran, ought to be a consummation devoutly to be wished!
The departing German envoy in Singapore, Ambassador Ulrich Sante, in a recent published article in the Straits Times shared some of his thoughts with the readership including on the impact on the community of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Among other things he has noted that it has implanted in us what in German is called Lebensangst, literally meaning ‘fear of life’ but in a broader sense, the loss of trust in resilience, and coldness. He has impassionedly argued: “We need to regain trust in each other again, to show warmth and affection and not treat everyone as potential messengers of death. Social distancing serves its purpose, but it cannot be a recipe for all time. It has the power to lead to social division, perhaps the most serious danger our societies face these days”. He is right. There is nothing to replace a light touch or a gentle caress to bring humans closer together. The handshake and the embrace were tools devised as humanity progressed towards civilized conduct, as these acts were performed to demonstrate that those hands carried no weapons.
The eyes of much of the world were focused on Beijing during the last week of May. That was because China had scheduled for that time-perod what is generally collectively termed “Two Sessions” or Lianghui in Mandarin. These are back-to-back annual parliamentary meetings of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the National People’s Congress (NPC). The event usually take place in March, but this year had to be pushed back to May because of the COVID virus. Again, ordinarily, these last ten days, but this year, for the same reason, the period was compressed to a week.
Politics have exacerbated the already severe pains that the raging COVID Pandemic have been inflicting on the global population. The spread of Coronavirus coincided with three major developments in the global arena. First was the end of what Charles Krauthammer, the American neo-conservative guru had called, as the title of his book on that subject suggested, America’s “Unipolar Moment”. This was the period, since the implosion of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, when the United states was the only pre-dominant superpower that ruled the roost in the global arena. Though China was rising in the meantime, politically, economically and militarily, it was still coy about it, conforming to the Deng Xia0ping counsel to “hide its capabilities and bide its time”.
Despite all the preoccupation with the current raging pandemic, it sadly appears that there has been no let-up in the global arms race among the major powers. In mid-May, the United States President Donald Trump, at an event for his new Space Force at the White House made a significant announcement, It was that the US was building right now an “incredible” new missile which would travel faster than any other in the world “by a factor of almost three”. This was obviously a response to the latest Russian ‘Avangard’ missile, which Russian President Vladimir Putin claims in invincible, with a speed of twenty times that of sound. The Chinese, reportedly are also feverishly working on their own hypersonic counterparts. All these would be strategic tools to significantly alter the war-fighting capabilities of humanity in the future.
When the United States and China signed the First-Phase of their Trade Agreement in January this year, President Donald Trump called it a “momentous step”, and the world believed they had stepped back from a dangerous brink. But, alas, to cite an idiom that is so current today, it was but a ‘false positive’. As the globe reels from the surgoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is possible that the rapid deterioration of US-China relationship can become one of the worst side-effects of this raging virus.