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Archive for August, 2019

Greenland’s Gamble

From his purchase of New Jersey casinos to his proposed acquisition of Greenland, Donald Trump’s real estate deals have always been plagued by bad timing. The United States could probably have bought Greenland from Denmark in 1917 (when it did buy the US Virgin Islands from the Danes), but he’s a century too late now.

Nevertheless, his latest bad idea does give us an incentive to catch up with what’s been happening in Greenland, and it’s quite interesting. Trump may not know this, since he rarely reads intelligence reports, but in November 2017 Greenland’s premier, Kim Kielsen, led a government delegation to Beijing to seek Chinese investment.

Greenland, the world’s biggest island, is not yet fully independent, but it is autonomous from Denmark in everything except foreign affairs and defence. Kielsen was looking mainly for Chinese investment in mining enterprises, but he was also interested in attracting a Chinese bid to build three modern airports in the island, which currently depends on World War II-era airstrips.

This set off a security panic in NATO, involving implausible nightmare visions about Greenland getting so deep in debt to Chinese banks that it would end up letting China (which has comically declared itself a ‘near-Arctic nation’) operate military aircraft from those airports.

The US military, which has a large air base at Thule in northern Greenland, then took fright. Washington strongly urged the Danish government, which provides two-thirds of Greenland’s budget revenue, to nip this threat in the bud. Copenhagen had previously refused to fund the new Greenland airports, but late last year it suddenly came up with very low-interest loans for them. End of panic.

By then Kim Kielsen’s government in the tiny capital of Nuuk (pop. 17,000) had collapsed, but his Siumut Party came out ahead in the election last April and he is back in power. And the issue of Chinese mines in Greenland is still on the table.

In fact, there already is one in southern Greenland, producing uranium and rare earths for a Chinese-Australian consortium. Other projects potentially involving Chinese capital (and Chinese workers) are under discussion, including a huge open-cast iron-ore mine near Nuuk, a zinc mine in the north, and both offshore and onshore oil and gas leases.

For the 56,000 Greenlanders, 90% of whom are Inuit (Eskimo), the geostrategic implications of Chinese investment are irrelevant – and they are probably right about that. What worries them, and occupies a central place in Greenlandic politics, is the cultural and social implications of foreign investment by anybody, Chinese or not.

The Greenland Inuit are one of the few indigenous society in the world that has full or almost full control over its own destiny, but the impact of the modern world on their traditional culture has been as destructive as it was for all the others: depression and other psychological illnesses, rampant alcoholism and drug use, and an epidemic of suicides.

So they face a choice. Do you go on trying to preserve what is left of the old Arctic hunting and fishing culture, although it’s already so damaged and discouraged that it has the highest suicide rate on the planet? Or do you seek salvation in full modernisation through high-speed economic growth, while keeping your language and what you can of your culture?

What’s remarkable about Greenlandic politics is how aware the players are of their dilemma and their options. “If you want to become rich, it comes at a price,” says Aqqaluk Lynge, one of the founders of the Inuit Ataqatigiit (Community of the People) party that ran the government until 2013.

Lynge and many others didn’t want to pay that price, and under the Inuit Ataqatigiit administration all mining was banned in Greenland. Quite apart from the environmental costs of large-scale mining operations, they believed, the many thousands of foreign workers they would bring in would have a devastating impact on the already very fragile Greenlandic culture.

The decision was made in 2013, when the Siumut Party took power. It believes that modernisation has gone too far to turn back now. Better to gamble on solving the current huge social problems by enabling everybody to live fully modern, prosperous lives. If you’re no longer marginalised and poverty-stricken, you’ll feel better about yourself.

As Aleqa Hammond, Kielsen’s predecessor as premier, said in 2014: “The shock will be profound, but we have faced colonisation, epidemics and modernisation before. The decisions we are making (to open the country up to mining and oil drilling) will have enormous impact on lifestyles and our indigenous culture. But we always come out on top. We are vulnerable, but we know how to adapt.”

Let us hope so, but the die is cast. Greenland will modernise, and in due course we will find out if that helps. It makes little difference to Greenlanders whether the foreign investment comes from Denmark, China or the United States, so long as they have political control – but they certainly don’t want to become Americans.

The ‘Greenland Purchase’ is not going to happen. As Soren Espersen, foreign affairs spokesman of the Danish People’s Party, said last week: “If (Trump) is truly contemplating this, then this is final proof that he has gone mad.”
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11, 12 and 14. (“What’s…culture”; and “As…adapt”)

Middle East: Treachery and Betrayal

Things have got so complicated in the Middle East that the players are no longer just stabbing each other in the back. They are stabbing each other in the chest, in the groin, behind the left ear – anywhere that comes to hand. Friends and allies one day are targets and enemies the next.

Item One: Israel is not just bombing Iranian troops and allies in Syria, which it has been doing on an almost weekly basis for years. It is now also bombing pro-Iranian groups in Iraq, a country that is a reluctant ally of the United States (US).

There are still US forces in Iraq, but the US ignores the Israeli attacks, and the Iraqi government has to ignore them, too. Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has to please both the Americans and his Iranian neighbours, who, as fellow Shias, benefit from strong popular sympathy in Iraq. His task is impossible, but he tries.

Item Two: Turkey, a NATO member and close American ally, is getting ready to invade northern Syria. As Turkey’s strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gets desperate at home (electoral humiliation, runaway inflation, popular anger), he looks for triumphs abroad.

Erdoğan is obsessed with the Kurds, a minority population in both Turkey and Syria, and he has long vowed to crush the self-governing Kurdish-ruled region that has emerged south of the border in northern Syria thanks to the civil war there. Now he’s actually going to do it.

The tricky bit is that these same Syrian Kurds provided the ground troops for the US campaign to eliminate Islamic State forces in Syria. That job is now done, but several thousand American troops remain in northeastern Syria, partly to deter Turkey from invading. Betraying the Kurds is a Middle Eastern tradition, however, and the US does not want war with Turkey.

Item Three: The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia’s closest ally, is pulling its troops out of Yemen. ‘Little Sparta’, as former US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis calls the UAE, has been the mainstay of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen since 2015. It seems to have realised, at last, that the intervention has failed and was a bad idea from the start.

It certainly was. When a northern Yemeni tribe called the Houthi seized control of most of Yemen in 2015, driving the Saudi-imposed puppet president into exile, the Saudi concluded that it was an Iranian plot. (The Houthis are Shia.) But that’s nonsense. It was just Round 189 in a power struggle between the Yemeni tribes that has been going on for centuries.
Parting gift

So the UAE is leaving, and its parting gift to the Yemenis last week was to back rebel militias in Aden who want to revive the old separate country of South Yemen. The Saudi Air Force bombed the rebels, of course, but they still hold most of the city.

This level of dysfunction would not even have caused comment in medieval Europe, but it is unique in the modern world. There are bits of Africa and Asia where individual countries are seeing this level of violence and chaos, but not many, and no whole regions. How can we account for it?

Maybe it’s the fact that dictators and absolute monarchs are thicker on the ground in the Middle East than anywhere else in the world, but that just moves the argument back one step. Why are they the norm in this region and not elsewhere? Could it be because the Middle East has seen more foreign military interventions than anywhere else on the planet?

Maybe – and it’s still going on. Overshadowing all the local follies is the possibility that the US will attack Iran on the false pretext that it is working on nuclear weapons. You know, like it invaded Iraq on the false pretext that it was working on nuclear weapons.

Korea and Japan: The History Wars

Nation-states, like four-year-olds, find it very hard to admit they are in the wrong and apologise. Adult intervention often helps, but all Japan and South Korea have is US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (who tried and failed to mediate a week ago in Bangkok). So the trade war between the two grows and festers.

There are obvious similarities with the trade war that Donald Trump is waging against China, with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe playing the Trump role: blustering bully with no clear game plan. Like the Trump trade war, too, the Japan-South Korea confrontation threatens to destabilise both East Asian security arrangements and the global market.

Yet the confrontation between Tokyo and Seoul is not really about trade at all. It’s about the difficult history of relations between an ex-imperial power, Japan, and its former colony, Korea.

Japan is existentially in the wrong in this relationship, because it seized control of Korea in 1905 and ruled it, sometimes with great brutality, until it was defeated in the Second World War in 1945. But Tokyo doesn’t like to be reminded of all that, and claims that it discharged whatever moral debt it owed when it paid $500 million to Seoul in 1965.

Koreans take a different view, of course, but the truth is that the victims of Japan’s wartime behaviour were sold out by their own government. $500 million was a lot of money, more than the South Korean government’s entire annual budget. The newly installed military-led regime in South Korea needed the money and accepted Japan’s terms.

Almost all the money went to building up South Korea’s new export industries. Japan offered to pay compensation directly to Korean individuals who had suffered forced labour and other injustices during the Second World War, but Seoul preferred to take a lump sum (and spend almost all the money on development). Many of the victims got little or nothing.

The resentment this caused was easily diverted onto Japan, which had driven a hard bargain and failed to accompany the compensation with an apology. Anti-Japanese hostility occasionally boiled over in notorious cases like the ‘comfort women’ (young Korean women who had been abducted to serve as sexual slaves for the Japanese army), but it is always bubbling away underneath.

Fast forward to last October, when South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that the lump-sum, government-to-government deal of 1965 did not cover damages for the mental anguish of individual wartime labourers. Subsequent rulings have authorised South Korean individuals to claim compensation from the Japanese industries that used their labour by forced legal sales of those companies’ assets in South Korea

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in did not seek this ruling from the Supreme Court, which is entirely independent. The Court was clearly stretching the law almost to breaking point, but in practical political terms he could not disown it.

Japan, on the other hand, was horrified by the ruling. Accepting it would open to door to huge claims for compensation from people who had suffered ‘mental anguish’ from the Japanese occupation in all the other countries Japan invaded between 1937 and 1945. It also felt betrayed: half a century ago it had paid out a lot of money to extinguish any further claims like these.

There has never been much love lost between Japanese and Koreans, but the two countries have almost always managed to keep important issues like trade and national security separate from the emotional flare-ups that make the relationship so fraught. Last month, however, Prime Minister Abe completely lost the plot. He began imposing restrictions on Japanese exports to South Korea.

They are relatively minor restrictions. Three classes of chemicals essential to making semiconducters that South Korea buys from Japan now require export licences. A minor bureaucratic hurdle, unless Japan stops approving the licenses (which it has not done).

More recently Japan has removed South Korea from its ‘whitelist’ of countries that are allowed to buy goods that can be diverted for military use with minimal restrictions. Again, no big deal. Just another little hurdle to cross, meant to rebuke and annoy South Korea, not to cause serious injury.

But it has been very successful in annoying South Koreans, who have spontaneously organised a quite effective boycott of Japanese-made goods. And petty though its origins may be, this confrontation is now raising the prospect that these long established trading partners, both closely allied to the United States and both anxious about China’s rise and the threat of North Korea, are going to have a real trade war.

Which, with help from the bigger trade war Donald Trump started with China, may be enough to tip the world economy into a deep recession.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“Koreans…terms”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Kashmir: The ‘Wounded Civilisation’ Strikes Back

God knows what novelist V.S. Naipaul really meant half a century ago when he called India ‘the wounded civilisation’ in his travelogue-cum-psychoanalysis book about the home of his ancestors. But it is a handy phrase, because it encapsulates the vision that drove Prime Minister Narendra Modi to destroy the deal that bound Kashmir to India on Monday.

There is going to be a war over this. Certainly another war in Kashmir, where tens of thousands of people were killed in the last uprising against Indian rule (1989-2007). Maybe also another war between India and Pakistan. There have been three already, of course, so maybe that’s not such a big deal – but this would be their first war since they both got nuclear weapons.

When Britain gave up its Indian empire in 1947 the general rule was that Muslim-majority areas went to Pakistan, Hindu-majority areas to India. Kashmir was tricky, however, because it was a ‘princely state’ with a Muslim majority but a Hindu ruler – and in the princely states, which were never under direct British rule, it was the prince who decided.

The Maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir (to give the state its full name) hesitated for a while, hoping to turn it into his own independent country. When the new government of Pakistan lost patience and sent ‘tribesmen’ into Kashmir to overthrow him, he quickly opted for India instead – and set in motion a conflict that is still going 72 years later.

India should probably have cut a deal with Pakistan that divided the state, giving Kashmir (current population 7 million, almost all Muslims) to Pakistan and keeping Jammu (current pop. 5 million, two-thirds Hindu) for itself. Instead, it tried to keep it all – and wound up in a war with Pakistan.

At the end of that war, India still held the densely populated Vale of Kashmir and Jammu, but Pakistan controlled the northern and western parts of the former princely state. The ‘Line of Control’ has not shifted since, despite two further Indo-Pakistani wars, and there is no mutually agreed border. Bill Clinton once called the cease-fire line “the most dangerous place in the world.”

The Congress Party that led India to independence was militantly secular, but it realised that the country’s only Muslim-majority state must have a special status. Jammu and Kashmir accepted India’s control over foreign affairs, defence and communications, but the J&K legislature kept its authority over everything else.

That included laws forbidding people not born in Jammu and Kashmir to settle in the state or own property there. Fair enough, as the relatively poor Muslim majority in the state feared being bought out or overwhelmed by Hindu incomers from the rest of India, which is 80% Hindu and now one-and-a-third billion strong.

Various Indian central governments nibbled away at Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy over the years, and there were periods of armed protest against the erosion of its status. But the state remained legally autonomous, its rights entrenched in the Indian constitution – until last Monday. Then Narendra Modi’s sectarian Hindu government, fresh from its landslide May election victory, swept them all away.

Modi obviously knows he’s asking for trouble. Ten thousand more Indian troops were moved into Kashmir (where there is already a huge military presence) in the past week. On Monday phone lines in Kashmir were cut, the internet was shut down, and elected Kashmiri leaders were arrested. New Delhi expects at least another uprising in Kashmir, and maybe another war with Pakistan. Why is Modi doing this?

Because the notion of the ‘wounded civilisation’ is at the heart of the Hindu nationalism that has brought Modi to power. According to this simplistic narrative, all of India’s past misfortunes and current problems are due to the fact that the Indian subcontinent (‘South Asia’) was conquered and ruled by foreigners for most of the past thousand years.

For the most recent couple of centuries it was the British empire, but at least the British went home again. For many centuries before that it was Muslims – foreign invaders at first, and then their Indian-born Muslim descendants and converts – who ruled most of the subcontinent. And they never went home: one-third of South Asia’s population, including 15% of India’s, is Muslim today.

Every nationalist movement lays claim to victimhood, and for aggrieved Hindu nationalists a Muslim-majority Indian state with special rights is a permanent insult. Abolishing those rights was one of Modi’s main election promises, and he is now delivering on it. Even if the heavens fall.

They probably won’t. The Kashmiri insurgency will certainly reignite, and Pakistan will feel obliged to help the uprising in some way. Some thousands, or more likely some tens of thousands, will die, and Kashmir will be an occupied war zone for a long time to come, but India and Pakistan will probably manage to veer away from all-out war once again.

But maybe they won’t, in which case we will all find out how well mutual nuclear deterrence works between two countries that are actually fighting a war.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“India…world”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.