Abraham Accords-II: Jews may help usher in a ‘Muslim Renaissance’!

Few had expected quick results, or any at all, to follow the “Abraham Accords” that the UAE and Bahrain signed with Israel in Washington in September 2020 a couple of months before US President Donald Trump ran for a second term in the White House.

Within nine months, however, two remarkable things have followed: One, the 11-day Jerusalem-Hamas conflict did not escalate into a full-scale Arab-Israel war—except beyond a minor war of word. This when more than 200 Palestinian died in Gaza, which Israel target-bombed to destroy what it called ‘terror infrastructure’ after Hamas missile-attacked Jerusalem and other areas.

Two, within a couple of weeks after this war, and for the first time in history, an Arab Muslim political party has become a kingmaker in Israel, signalling the arrival of “Abraham Accords-II”. The Saudis, and other Arabs, could sign peace deals with Israel to counter the threats from non-Arab Muslim countries like Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan, within the larger Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), headquartered in Jeddah.

In the 21st century, a grand Jewish-Christian-Muslim reconciliation may be slowly emerging. It has the potential to bring about a “Muslim Renaissance” the second largest community in the world is expecting for a long time so as to shake off the burden of obscurantism, terrorism, and backwardness to join the global mainstream of development.

After several trials and errors, this megatrend actually began a decade ago with the “Arab Spring” heralding the retreat of feudalism and dynastic power transfer in the Muslim world. For that matter, even Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is targeting to resurrect the Ottoman Empire and Caliphate, is a democratically-elected leader.

Democracy, therefore, is in the air in the world’s most volatile region.

Israel is no exception.

After helming Israel for 12 crucial years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now facing ouster after his opponents announced a deal last week to replace him. Curiously, for the first time, a minor Muslim party, United Arab List (UAL), has emerged as the kingmaker in Israel’s democracy as part of the anti-Netanyahu coalition.

The dramatic announcement made by Opposition leader Yair Lapid and his main coalition partner Naftali Bennett came soon after a deadline at last Wednesday midnight and prevented the Jewish country from plunging into its fifth consecutive election in just over two years.

“This government will work for all the citizens of Israel, those that voted for it, and those that didn’t. It will do everything to unite Israeli society’, Lapid tweeted.

However, no one is sure of this new government’s longevity. For, the coalition partners are still not clear on many issues except their opposition to Netanyahu. Its leaders, centrist Yair Lapid and ultranationalist and hardliner Naftali Bennett will lead the country as PM by rotation, with Bennett taking oath first.

Curiously, his right-wing party failed to cross the electoral threshold in 2019 and had no seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. Two years later, he is ready to replace his former boss as the next PM.

A former chief of staff to then-opposition leader, Netanyahu, Bennett could now unseat the PM, bringing an end to his run as the country’s longest serving PM, for 12 years.

Despite his far-right beliefs, a former Defence Minister and millionaire Bennett, 49, has signed onto a historic coalition agreement with centrist leader Yair Lapid who cobbled together a wide swath of political parties together accounting for 61 seats out of 120 in parliament to oust Netanyahu.

And, for the first time in Israeli history, a Muslim party, United Arab List (UAL), led by a dentist Dr. Mansour Abbas, has emerged as the second kingmaker, in an awkwardly assembled coalition of unlikeliest parties, like that of the then Indian PM V P Singh’s in the 1989-91 period.

If Israel’s parliament green-signals, Bennett will take the top job for the first two years of a four-year term, followed by Lapid.

Interestingly, Bennett is even more ultranationalist than Netanyahu and will carry into office a history of incendiary remarks about Palestinians and his well-known criticism of the two-state solution and the ambition to annex part of the occupied West Bank.

Because of his far-right beliefs, Israelis gave only seven seats to Bennett’s Yamina party in the March 2021 elections, compared to Netanyahu’s 30 in the 120-member Knesset. But Bennett found himself the first kingmaker, wooed by both Netanyahu and Lapid who needed his party’s support in order to form a majority.

After his fallout, Bennett became a fierce Netanyahu critic, condemning his pandemic Covid-19 handling and country’s interminable political deadlock. Four elections in two years left the country in flux, with Netanyahu simultaneously appearing to be both stubbornly unmovable yet perpetually on the cusp of losing power.

It is in this backdrop that Bennett will become the PM.

Not only Abbas is the odd partner, even the two main coalition partners are also unlikely bedfellows. A charismatic former TV anchor, Lapid supports a two-state solution with the Palestinians and opposes the influence of religion in Israel, which he wants to address through steps like mixed civil marriages.

Bennett’s coalition agreement must first get a vote of confidence in the Knesset within a week of being formally notified as the PM of a new government. This step might not happen until Monday, which means the vote could be held as late as June 14.

That means there’s still time for Netanyahu and his allies to convince members of parliament to defect from the coalition, or somehow tie things up procedurally in parliament. A collapse of the ceasefire with the Hamas-led militants in Gaza or another outside event could also topple the burgeoning new government.

Apart from this internal Israeli politics, the Abbas factor is of crucial importance. If he remains survives as part of the government, he could become a source of inspiration to other Muslim leaders to reconcile with the Jews, bring peace to the region, and herald an era of Muslim Renaissance.

Dragon’s folly: China drives India back into the western camp

One of the key principles of a country’s foreign policy is to everything to drive a wedge between your enemies and prevent them from ganging against you. An overconfident People’s Republic of China (PRC) may have forgotten this basic rule of diplomacy and defense. In just one year, it has successfully forced India to almost abandon its “Look East” policy and drive New Delhi into the western camp that now also includes Australia and Japan from the East.

For instance, China’s short-sighted invasion in East Ladakh, followed by a bloody conflict, a prolonged standoff, empty threats and warnings, culminating into a humiliating meltdown of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in February 2021 convinced New Delhi that the Dragon was, at best, an unpredictable beast best kept at bay. That is when India began to actively participate in the revived Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) with the USA, Australia and Japan. This group is seen as a pilot project for the establishment of an ‘Asian NATO’.

The Quad leaders’ virtual Summit in March 2021 sealed the new-look India-US relationship, and determined how India sees its future with China.

India did not stop at that. In April, it went ahead with a post-Brexit relationship with the United Kingdom and moved closer to the European Union—using trade as the cement in both the cases. The enhanced trade partnership between India and the UK will start with market access to confidence building measures (CBMs) before graduating to a Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

India is also set to resume work from 2013 to align with the EU in the same spirit.

Given its historic relationship with London, the India-UK deal is expected to come faster because of vested interests involved on both sides. The EU’s case is rather rigid and more demanding of reciprocity.

India’s western tilt is not surprising. For long, India built independent ties with major European players like France, Germany, the UK etc, rather than with the EU as a unit. In particular, Paris became India’s go-to partner in Europe, cutting across sectors like defence, strategic, nuclear and multilateral spheres, to the extent that France can now almost replace Russia. The Nordics of Northern Europe are India favourites in areas like smart cities, 5G, AI and semiconductors. Outside the EU, the UK, with which India never quite severed its umbilical ties, holds enormous promise, media reported.

Global politics makes an interesting read. Some four decades ago, the US and Europe gave muscles to China against the USSR. The West believed that transformation of an impoverished Communist China into a prosperous one would make it more democratic and accommodative. The reverse has happened. China is now a global pariah and threat to the planet.

That is why an EU-China trade deal is hanging fire. Now the West is trying to support India, but cautiously, to balance China out. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is reaching up to Europe’s door and dividing the Continent, the way Warsaw Pact did.

Once bitten twice shy. The West would, of course, not repeat the mistake it did with China. India will have to work hard to convince the West that its transformation as a result of its engagement with the EU, US and UK will not be threatening the way China’s has become.

But India has an ace or two up its sleeves. One is human rights about which the West is very sensitive, particularly after the Dragon’s threats. This, India hopes, will ease its dialogue with the EU much easier. The other is climate change and preference to renewable energy sources which India plans to tap to generate 150 GW of electricity.

Plus India has some attractive offers, too, it can use to leverage its strengths: the world’s largest democracy, the second largest market, English language users’ pool, technology advances, talented youngsters and a climate change believing masses.

And China’s suspicious role in the Covid-19 pandemic has also come as a booster shot for India. It sent billions of Covid-19 vaccines to nearly 65 countries early this year, earning their goodwill in return, as a dependable democratic ally.

O’ Jerusalem! Old players, and a new script, pit non-Arabs against Arabs

The week-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, beginning May 10, has little new to write home about. The issues are familiar, the players are also the same, and even the Palestinians continue to be the Muslim geopolitical fodder. It may soon lead to yet another ceasefire…until the next conflict.

Only the script is new, however—and that makes the difference.

Around 150 people, including some 140 Palestinians of Gaza Strip, have died in the latest conflict which apparently began with the militant ruling group of the city, Hamas, attacking Jerusalem with missiles. In retaliation, Israel also launched a fierce attack on Gaza….As in the past, there will be routine condemnations, highfalutin Muslim-friendly speeches, angry reactions from morally-high horsemen, assurance of much aid with little real one to the victim Palestinians, et el. Once again.

Under pressure from within the global non-Arab Muslim community, Saudi Arabia, which headquarters the 57-member Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) is hosting a virtual meeting of Foreign Ministers on Sunday (May 16, 2021) to discuss the issue. In all likelihood, Riyadh would try to push the issues under the red carpet.

But more important is Turkey’s role.

On May 13, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Israel a “terror state” after its police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at Palestinian protesters at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque. He also asked the Muslim nations to “take a clear stand” on this matter.

His communication director Fahrettin Altun condemned Israel on May 15 for targeting the 11-storeyed building in Gaza that housed offices of The Associated Press, Al Jazeera, and other media outlets. Nobody said what Israel said: the same building also allegedly housed Hamas group’s command centres and  “terror infrastructure”. If true, it is yet another proof that the terrorists have been successfully using the short-sighted and news-hungry media groups as a camouflage, everywhere.

Israel said that Hamas, which is ruling Gaza since 2007, has created ‘terror tunnels’ across the city’s residential areas having schools and other civilian facilities to protect itself from Israeli attacks. Jerusalem has often accused Hamas to intentionally follow this strategy and use human shields against Israeli attacks. But this time, the Jewish Army decided to teach Hamas a lesson, an official said.

Behind this Hamas strategy is the support it gets from Turkey and Iran which are out to corner the Arabs, led by Riyadh, within the OIC. Ankara wants to wrest the Sunni Muslim leadership from the Saudis; the Shia Tehran supports it. Both these communities coexisted for five centuries when Turkey was centre of the Ottoman Empire and the Caliphate until 1924 and Iran’s was also an empire, whose last dynasty was the Pahalvis until 1979. Tehran wants the Turks to subjugate the Arabs and cause a split within the Sunni ranks.

Disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the Caliphate in 1924 by Turkey’s progressive leader Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk”, changed the power equations. As many as 22 Arab sheikhdoms mushroomed on the corpse of the Ottomans. While Erdogan wants to resurrect the Ottoman Empire, the Arabs are resisting it as they no longer want to be re-assimilated by the Sunni empire.

That was why Turkey and Iran sponsored Hamas to provoke Israel into attacking Gaza, knowing well that Jerusalem will counter-attack. It will force the Arabs to condemn Israel with which they have been trying to be friendly. Turkey and Iran were incensed against the Arabs since September 2020 when then US President Donald Trump organized a meeting of three Arab countries and Israel to sign up a peace deal.  The UAE signed it, with subtle support from the Saudis. Other Arab nations were also being lined up to sign these “Abraham Accords.” Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu even paid a not-so-secret visit to Saudi Arabia, sending clear signals which way the wind was blowing.

To corner the Arabs, Turkey and Iran apparently incited Hamas to stir the pot and provoke the Arab masses against their own rulers for signing the deal with an Israel which is ‘crushing’ the innocent Palestinian Muslims.

That is why seven years after the 2014 Israeli-Hamas conflict, the Levant region in the Middle East is burning, yet again. It is little of an Arab-Israeli conflict and more of the Turkey-Iran combine pushing the Arabs against the Jewish state.

As part of its strategy to resurrect the Ottoman Empire, Turkey is planning to pit 35 non-Arab nations—including Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia etc.—against the 22 Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia. This split in the Muslim Brotherhood, Ankara believes, could encourage the Arab masses to overthrow their Sheikhdoms in what it thinks could be the second “Arab Spring”.

This America and Europe want to avoid. That is why, President Joe Biden has supported Israel’s ‘right of self-defense’ and respond to the Hamas missile attacks.

Ever since Erdogan became Turkey’s President in 2014, he has transformed this progressive country into a regressive one, from a secular to an Islamist. He has also been trying to fish in troubled waters of other countries, such as France, inciting Muslims against various causes, in a bid to create an international support base for his dream project.

But there is a problem: the Ottoman Empire, until a century ago before it died in 1924, extended to the Balkan areas of Central and Eastern Europe, which is now part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Interestingly, even Turkey is its member (against Russia).

The last week’s mayhem stemmed from Hamas attacking Israel with hundreds of missiles, forcing the Jews to run for cover as nearly 10 of them died. Then the Palestinians demonstrated against the Jewish government at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, prompting the Israeli police to react.

The Israeli action at this mosque is an emotional issue for all the Muslims everywhere. The mosque compound, which also houses the revered Dome of the Rock, is believed to be the place from where Prophet Muhammad had started his nocturnal journey to meet Allah. It is, therefore, considered the third holiest Muslim shrine after Mecca and Medina.

Clearly, Hamas, and its sponsors Turkey and Iran, are inciting the Muslims and challenging the Arabs to condemn and break up with their ‘new friend’ (Israel), and dump the Abraham Accords, or risk alienation within the OIC before their possible expulsion.

The situation is, simply, complicated!

Watch this space…

Covid-19:2: China gets a much-needed ‘shot’ in the arm!

How do times change? And how a suspect in 2020 turns into a messiah in 2021? But how long can China hold on to this newfound importance?

China knows but is readying to use this ‘transformation’ to the hilt. The way it used the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a weapon to implement its gargantuan geopolitical objectives, the global vaccine shortage against the Covid-19:2 pandemic has suddenly come as a god-sent opportunity to an atheist Beijing. These vaccines are China’s BRI-II as they have become the latest weapon in Beijing’s arsenal to break or bend targeted nations to its will. At least in the short term.

Recall how then US President Donald Trump had dubbed the pandemic’s cause as a “Chinese virus” in 2020, vilifying the Dragon as the main culprit behind the spread of Covid-19. Some actions of China, like its alleged manipulation of the World Health Organization (WHO) to get off the hook, added to the mystery about the origins of the outbreak.

But 2021 is different. Trump is no longer the White House boss. China’s biggest Asian ‘frenemy’ India, a major vaccine supplier until recently, is struggling to contain the second wave of the pandemic and reduced from being an exporter of vaccines to importer. Paying back, some 40 countries, including the US, the European Union and the UK, have rushed medical supplies to India. If they had not, the rising tide of the pandemic in the vast market of India would have jeopardized future plans of their multinational corporations.

Media reported last week that the world is fast becoming ever more reliant on China for vaccines, as India has banned export of vaccines in view of its own precarious situation. Seeing China regaining its position, the US is also trying to recalibrate its position as a champion of wider access.

Over the past few weeks, some of the most populous countries have sought more doses of vaccines from China despite reservations about their efficacy. This demand may rise once the WHO authorizes vaccines from China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd. and Sinopharm Group Co. Ltd., allowing developing countries in the ‘Third World’ to access them through Covax, the global vaccination effort.

“China has become not just the largest exporter,” said Yanzhong Huang, a China specialist and senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “In many countries it has become the only option.”

China’s potential reliability as a vaccine supplier has increased its geopolitical clout while the United States and the European Union allegedly hoarded their stocks and were slow to respond while India, Brazil and other countries gasped for breath. India’s crisis has forced the affected countries to turn toward China.

Seeing China’s quick responses, President Joe Biden said last week that the US will start playing a more active role. America donned the hat of Santa Claus, waived patents on Covid-19 vaccines to allow other countries to manufacture them, and rushed supplies to India. Planning to reposition the US in geopolitics, he is ready to make the country an “arsenal for fighting Covid-19” globally, amid attacks of new variants.

India, the world’s third-biggest vaccine supplier after China and the European Union, had exported 67 million doses to nearly 100 countries until the devastating second wave of Covid-19 forced it to halt most deliveries in April.

As soon as the WHO authorizes Chinese vaccines, many countries could line up before Beijing for supplies, despite concerns about potential public-health hazards involving these shots that have demonstrated lower efficacy rates than those made by America behemoths Pfizer and Moderna. Chinese vaccines have already been hampered by a lack of authentic trial data and a preference for vaccines from the Western companies.

But the world urgently needs vaccines. Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised last week that China would provide vaccines to countries that had been dependent on India. The same day, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe secured an agreement to enhance military cooperation with Bangladesh. Soon, Dhaka also approved emergency use of the Sinopharm shots as the promised 15 million doses it paid for from the Serum Institute of India (SII) failed to arrive.

In April, Chinese President Xi Jinping had opposed “vaccine nationalism” in a conversation with Indonesian leader Joko Widodo, whose government green-signalled Sinopharm for emergency use. Indonesia also secured an additional 15 million shots of Sinovac.

India’s export ban has made Indonesia increasingly dependent on vaccine supplies from China. Other countries have also been forced to fall in line, only a few months after they were dissociating from the BRI projects.

Even the Philippines, having a territorial dispute with China, fell in line as it negotiated with Sinovac for a monthly delivery of four million doses. After India’s export delays deprived Manila of its biggest vaccine order, President Rodrigo Duterte said: “China remains our benefactor. Just because we have a conflict with China doesn’t mean to say that we have to be rude and disrespectful.”

Pushed from the centre-stage to the side-lines in vaccine supplies, India is watching these development with concern. New Delhi believes the current phase of the pandemic will pass soon and it can ramp up supplies again in a few months. India is aware that China is trying to exploit New Delhi’s crisis but is confident that other countries understand its predicament, an official said.

But China’s delight may, after all, be short-lived. For, many people from Pakistan to Brazil and Africa show a traditional lack of confidence in Chinese products, including vaccines.

That is where the Dragon’s soft belly is!

Covid-19: Vaccines as a new global geopolitical weapon

Some nations have suddenly acquired a new weapon to further their geopolitical aims: Vaccines for Covid-19. Some multinational corporations, likewise, are using the once-in-a-century opportunity to make profit out of coronavirus victims.

They all conveniently camouflage their real objectives with high-sounding morals. Profit-making, not life-saving, has always been their mission statement. If anything, the pandemic has exposed all such hypocrites.

Start with Bill Gates, the global ‘idol of philanthropy’. In 2015, he was said to have predicted a pandemic soon. In the recent years, the Microsoft co-founder invested heavily in pharmaceutical sector to emerge as a vaccine czar as well. Despite his philanthropic claims, he would not like to transfer vaccine technology to others, including India, as he believed that it cannot be done without American “grants” and “expertise”. In other words, the developing countries cannot manufacture vaccines without American technology.

Gates, and the US, appeared peeved at India not only indigenously developing Covid-19 vaccines but also exporting these to nearly 70 countries in what became known as ‘vaccine diplomacy’. It was in this backdrop that US President Joe Biden, ostensibly at the behest of American vaccine-makers, invoked the Defense Production Act of 1950 to starve India of critical American raw material required to manufacture and deliver the vaccines.

India responded with some deft diplomacy of checks-and-balances. It showed a keen interest in Russian and Chinese vaccines instead! This alarmed Washington last week as its plans to contain China with the help of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad)—the anti-Beijing group of four democracies viz, the US, India, Australia, and New Zealand—could go haywire. The Biden administration did a quick course correction to control the damage and, with amazing speed, sent assistance to India.

Not to lag behind, Russia also rushed planeloads of assistance including vaccines to beat the US at its own game. China, which initially tried to wean India away from America, later backtracked. Some 40 countries extended help to India, which is combating a killer second wave of the pandemic, as a pay-back: in the last few months, New Delhi had helped these nations with vaccines via the WHO and business channels.

Why is the US—or for that matter Russia or China—trying to leverage vaccine-making as a geopolitical weapon? This coronavirus is not a one-off epidemic nor is it going to disappear in a hurry. German vaccine-maker BioNTech’s CEO Ugur Sahin had said in December 2020 that the virus will stay with us for the next 10 years. “We need a new definition of normal,” he said. No wonder, influenza is around even after a century, killing some five million people every year.

Clearly, all the Covid-19 afflicted will need effective vaccines, and then booster shots, to combat new variants of Covid-19. In addition, the co-morbidities and side-effects they develop will mean new business opportunities! Covid-19 provides a ‘sustainable’ business model for global pharmaceutical giants!

According to a report by the US health data company, IQVIA Holdings Inc., released last week, the world is going to spend at least USD 15 billion on Covid-19 vaccines until 2025, as the affected countries will have to go for mass vaccination programmes, followed by “booster shots.”

IQVIA, which provides data and analytics for the healthcare industry, said it expected the first wave of Covid-19 vaccinations to reach about 70 percent of the global population by the end of 2022. Booster shots are likely to follow initial vaccinations every two years as per the current data on the duration of effect of the vaccines, media reports said.

America itself is preparing for the possibility that a booster shot will be required between nine and 12 months after the people receive their first full inoculations against the pandemic. Top pharma player Pfizer has also confirmed that these shots may be needed within 12 months.

Quad gallops as Australia thumbs nose at China’s BRI

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) is getting fresh steam and may forge ahead in 2021 to formally emerge as the ‘Asian NATO’. Quad, which its prime mover America sees as an instrument to remain the world’s only superpower in the 21st century, got two fillips last week. One, the US-led West arm-twisted India (on the Covid-19 vaccine issue) to end its dilly-dallying and join the four-nation pressure group against Beijing, and two, Australia broke off deals with China’s Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI).

Like NATO, the US-led Quad is a group of four ‘democratic’ countries (USA, India, Japan and Australia), against a ‘dictatorial’ China. More members could be enrolled into Quad once it formalizes as ‘Asian NATO’.

The US attempts to pull in Australia and India as ‘active’ participants in the Quad have begun to bear fruit with Canberra’s decisive steps. Japan, which suffered the American nuclear attacks in 1945, is more cautious.

In the last few months, China has tried to keep India away from Quad. In February, it pulled back the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Eastern Ladakh. This month, it agreed to export Chinese vaccines to India to combat Covid-19, at a time America is trying to leverage its position.

On Australia, however, China is furious, and slammed Canberra’ decision, signalling a worsening of ties between the nations.

The Australian federal government scrapped both the Memorandum of Understanding and framework agreement signed between Victoria (Australia’s south-eastern state) and China’s National Development and Reform Commission, Beijing’s top economic planning body. Foreign Minister Marise Payne described the deals, signed in 2018-19, as “inconsistent with Australia’s foreign policy or adverse to our foreign relations.”

Payne’s announcement, which included bans on two other deals between Victoria and the governments of Iran and Syria, is an indication how fast the US is drawing in Australia inside the Quad.

The BRI deals with Victoria, Australia’s small but second-most populous state, aimed to increase Chinese participation in new infrastructure projects.

Condemning the step, Beijing’s embassy in Canberra said it “is another unreasonable and provocative move taken by the Australian side against China.” “It further shows that the Australian government has no sincerity in improving China-Australia relations—it is bound to bring further damage to bilateral relations, and will only end up hurting itself.”

The Communist Party of China (CPC) mouthpiece Global Times quoted Chen Hong, Director of the Australian Studies Centre at East China Normal University in Shanghai, as saying that Australia has “basically fired the first major shot against China in trade and investment conflicts” and that “China will surely respond accordingly.”

In a stern representation lodged with Australia, China has reserved the right to take more action, media quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin as saying on Thursday in Beijing.

Relations between Australia and its largest trading partner have been souring since 2020 when Canberra demanded an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic now known as Covid-19. Beijing has since reacted with trade reprisals, including imposing crippling tariffs on Australian barley and wine while blocking coal shipments. In retaliation, Australia has also made life difficult for Chinese students coming for education, apart from taking other steps.

The Australian move to scrap BRI deals is the first under the new laws passed by the national parliament in December 2020, empowering the Foreign Minister to stop new and previously signed agreements between overseas governments and Australia’s eight states and territories, and also with bodies such as local authorities and universities.

These laws allowed the federal government, currently led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, to block or curtail foreign involvement in a broad range of sectors including infrastructure, trade cooperation, tourism, cultural collaboration, science, health and education, and university research partnerships.

Foreign Minister Payne said more than 1,000 arrangements had been made between foreign governments and Australia’s states and territories, local governments and public universities.

But China has still not lost all hopes. The new law may allow the federal government to review and overturn MoUs between Beijing and the state governments of Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania in sectors ranging from investment, science cooperation and access to the Antarctic. “I will continue to consider foreign arrangements,” Payne said. “I expect the overwhelming majority of them to remain unaffected.”

Wang Huiyao, an adviser to China’s cabinet and founder of the Center for China and Globalization, described Australia’s move as unwise.

Victoria’s participation in the BRI was a “huge benefit” for Australia, and “if they abandon that, it’s going to take more time for China-Australia relations to recover.”

Last week, America dilly-dallied export of vaccines and their ingredients to India, which is severely affected with the second wave of Covid-19. This dilly-dallying is strategic, and a quid pro quo for New Delhi’s own dilly-dallying to sign up for whole-hearted participation in the Quad.

This story is unfolding…

Is Jack ma China’s own Mikhail Gorbachev?

By jacking down Jack Ma, the Dragon has started killing the geese that laid golden eggs for four decades since the People’s Republic of China (PRC) began its four-pronged modernizations in the early 1990s, at a time the Soviet Union, as a superpower, was disintegrating.

In its quest to replace Moscow as the next superpower, Beijing failed to see the ironies: the USSR had  heavily invested beyond its pocket to match rival America’s Star Wars programme. It went bust soon. On the other hand, China, nearly broke by the 1980s, turned itself around at a breakneck speed as it followed its visionary leader Deng Hsiao Feng’s famous words: “It does not matter what the cat’s colour is, as long as it catches mice!”

Then came Deng’s nemesis: Xi Jinping, who came to power in 2013,and crowned himself President-for-Life five years later. He was inspired not from Deng or even Mao Zedong but from North Korea’s Lilliputian dictators.

Under him, China began to balloon out. Before him, Beijing had adopted a dual system: for Hong Kong and indigenous entrepreneurs, as it went the whole hog embracing capitalist economy. With Xi’s advent, China became expansionist overtly and covertly, collecting more enemies than friends; it tried to erase Hong Kong’s autonomy, crushed the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, unnecessarily provoked America, India, Japan and Australia, among others, and united them against itself.

On the socio-political front, Beijing shrunk within, like an atheistic version of Islamists. The PRC and the Arabs are both burdened by prosperity and ultra-conservatism and are the mirror images of each other.

That is why the way the Muslim world, torn between material prosperity and psychological poverty, is tearing apart, the PRC, too, is disintegrating.

Jack Ma may well become the PRC’s own Mikhail Gorbachev, not only the whistle-blower but also the magnet that would attract reformers trying to get rid of the Communist Party’s ‘ultra-Islamic’ rule.  

The signs are appearing.

In six months, China has undone the work of millions of ambitious and starry-eyed Chinese youth who pushed their pauperised country to make it the world’s most enviable economy.

So what has China done? It has just punished its best-known entrepreneur and only the second best known Chinese, globally, after a revanchist President Xi Jinping. Jack Ma’s crime? He wanted the PRC to shed its archaic ways and modernize its outlook.

In October 2020, the Xi Gang cracked the whip against Jack Ma. It first stopped Ma-led Alibaba’s $35 billion IPO, the world’s biggest, and almost house-arrested him for months. Then it slapped a record $2.8 billion fine on Albaba Group Holding Ltd which, the government claimed, was abusing its monopolistic market dominance! Ironically, it is not Jack Ma but the Communist Party which has a monopolistic dominance not only over economy, but also in socio-political-academic-cultural narratives in the PRC.

With this hammer, the PRC may have readied its own coffin.

For, the miracle that is China today is not due to its fossilized Communist leadership but because of the innovations, hard work, and sacrifices made by millions of Chinese entrepreneurs who managed to create over 800 billionaires in four decades. Jack Ma is only one of them, though the most successful.

With his wings being clipped—or so China thinks!—the glorious era of China’s technology and financial giants is over.

In aping Moscow, Beijing forgot one crucial thing: despite facing challenges from America and its own socio-economic-political crises, the Soviets innovated a lot in both theoretical and practical science and technology, won multiple Nobel Prizes, even as they curbed political rebels. China, on the other hand, did little in theoretical and practical science and technology, followed corrupt practices, and shunned serious innovations that made both Moscow and Washington great powers for decades.

In contrast, China’s global ‘influence’, which began with Xi Jinping’s coronation in 2013, came to end in 2020 with its suspected role in a global biological warfare via the Covid-19 pandemic. Today, Beijing has lost trust even of unofficial Islamabad!

The full implications of China’s breakneck moves against Jack Ma’s internet empire would soon begin to manifest as other billionaires, suffocated in their country’s archaic policies within and geopolitical blunders without, gang up in rebellion: simply by doing nothing noteworthy any further!

This possibility is emerging after they witnessed how Beijing went against not only Jack Ma’s Alibaba but also ordered an overhaul of Ant Group Company’ It regulators summoned 34 of the country’s largest companies, including Tencent Holdings Ltd and Tiktok owner ByteDance Ltd, warning them all that “the red line of laws cannot be touched.”

As the world struggled with coronavirus, China managed to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory, not only within but also without—against India, for example. Because the message Ma and other entrepreneurs got was that the decades of unfettered expansion, that created challengers to Facebook and Google, had ended.

Henceforth, China’s technology companies would shun innovation and move far more cautiously, what with their limbs tied up. Their international forays would also stop and their exponential growth will become subject of world lore. China’s billionaires, who elevated the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese people, will now enjoy the fruit of their labour rather than taking any more risks via-a-vis their unelected dictatorial government.

Growth of startups, modern era’s economic miracles, may also come to a halt. The likes of Alibaba and Tencent, who became Chinese industry’s kingmakers by investing billions of dollars into hundreds of startups, may hardly show any interest in continued investment in new startups.

With individual entrepreneurship and enthusiasm being suspected, these billionaires have also learnt a hard lesson in the last few months. The unprecedented series of regulatory actions has proved that Beijing will go all out to rein in its internet and fin-tech giants who have already seen how $200 billion were wiped off Alibaba’s valuation since October 20

This week, media reported that Chinese titans from Tencent to Meituan are next up in the cross-hairs because they’re the dominant players in their respective fields. “The days of reckless expansion and wild growth are gone forever, and from now on the development of these firms is likely going to be put under strict government control. That’s going to be the case in the foreseeable future,” said Shen Meng, a director at Beijing-based boutique investment bank Chanson & Co.

“Companies will have to face the reality that they need to streamline their non-core businesses and reduce their influence across industries. The cases of Alibaba and Ant will prompt peers to take the initiative to restructure, using them as the reference.

The most amorphous yet dire threat lies in the simple principle implicit in regulators’ pronouncements over the past few days: that Beijing will brook no monopolies that threaten its hold on power.

Clearly, Xi is scared that Jack Ma might replace him as President of China!

How pandemics alter geopolitics, create new superpowers?

Pandemics are, perhaps, like Nature’s detergents that cleanse up clogged arteries of Organic Evolution by removing surplus population. These widespread diseases have often changed the course of world history.

Nothing cripples human societies the way diseases do. Pandemics have triggered the collapse of empires, weakened contemporary powers, and institutions, caused social upheavals and ended even wars. They have altered geopolitics, pushed up new players, and unveiled superpowers

Thus, these scourges have had great influence in shaping human society, civilizations, geopolitics, and national politics throughout history.

We can list here some of these pandemics and how they reshaped our known history.

The Justinian Plague was among the deadliest pandemics ever recorded. It broke out in the sixth century in Egypt and spread fast to Constantinople, the capital of the then Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine), at the peak of its imperial glory. The plague was named after the then Byzantine’s Christian Emperor Justinian (482-565 AD). The outbreak spread from Constantinople to both the East and West, and killed an estimated 25 to 100 million people.

The scourge returned, again and again, in waves, in different countries, until 750 AD, paving the way for Islam to replace a weakened Christianity as the dominant faith. The Byzantine army weakened as it failed to recruit new soldiers or maintain military supplies to battlegrounds. It lost one province after another…By the time the plague ended, the empire had lost vast tracts of Europe to the new forces like Germanic-speaking Franks and Syria and Egypt to Islam…

Another pandemic, the deadliest in our recorded annals, which changed the course of history in the medieval era, was the Black Death, or pestilence. It hit Europe and Asia in the 14th century and was estimated to have killed between 75 and 200 million people. In the early 1340s, the scourge struck India, China, Egypt, Syria and some other countries before arriving in Europe in 1347 where it killed about 50 percent of the total population.

It also had lasting economic and social consequences. The pandemic led to large-scale persecution of the Jews in Europe as the Christians blamed the community for spreading the diseases…it continued until the Jews returned to Israel after the Second World War in the mid-20th century.

But the Black Death was also a great leveler. It began to dismantle the old feudal system, improved the wages for workers due to their dwindled numbers, and gave a strong voice to the underprivileged…which led to the emergence of democracy. It also weakened the hold of the Church on the Christians some of whom broke away to form Protestant denominations—and virtually shifted the global power of Christianity to America.

In the early 20th century, the ‘Spanish flu’ we now know as influenza impacted likewise. The pandemic broke out in the last phase of the First World War (1914-18), killing up to 50 million people worldwide. From Europe, it spread to America and Asia. It weakened the war machine of the Germans and Austrians, and dismantled the last Muslim Empire of the Ottomans. India was the worst-hit; it lost about 6 percent of the population, up to 18 million people, crippling the British Empire and its Indian soldiers, and paving the way for the rise of anti-colonial movement, and Mahatma Gandhi.

Similarly, in the early 21st century, Covid-19 has unfolded to reshape geopolitics…in 2021, we are apprehensive of what could happen next. While the pandemic is still unfolding in waves, ebbs and flows, and will take years to settle down with a ‘new normal’, we can make some intelligent guess about its long-term impact.

Some experts have suggested the following three-phased progression: (1) The end of the globalized liberal order; (2) A resurgence of authoritarianism, as in the 1930s; and (3) a China-dominated New World Order.

But this appears simplistic, based as it is on the previous scenarios. Of course the past can guide us to explain the present and push us towards the possible future, we should know that the past would have stayed on if it was perfect.  A study of history can make us historian, not history-maker!

We can make history if learn from past errors and innovate for the future.

Covid-19 can help us understand the emerging scenario.

The fear that we have come to the end of the globalized liberal order appears unfounded; in our world of globalization of economies and internationalization of civilization, this is not possible—even dictatorships promise democracy! No country, not even North Korea or Myanmar, for example, can live in isolation for long, sitting as they are on their own volcanoes; they will have to come to terms with modernity and join the mainstream, or disintegrate and disappear.

Similarly, the authoritarianism of the 1930s cannot return, except in some areas. No country, not even Saudi Arabia, can afford to ignore the calls of modernity. And no country can import only the consumer products of the West but not its socio-political value systems that had created those products in the first place. Science and democracy are Siamese twins.

Which brings us to the ‘belief’ that China can replace America as the sole superpower.

Of course the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has risen phenomenally as an economic powerhouse, but its ancient socio-political infrastructure is unable to absorb so much wealth; it is like a beggar burdened with a jackpot! Internal pressures will eventually prise open the Communist-controlled dying socio-political infrastructure and create a new one.

There is a major difference between China and America; the former is almost entirely full of native population while the latter is almost full of immigrants of different varieties and generations. In the US, the people run the government; in the PRC, it is the other way round.

So China can flaunt its riches and huge population, America is likely to remain ahead of it due to its controlled population constantly requiring immigrants who come with innovations. Thus America will, in all likelihood, continue to remain the planet’s hub of innovations while China will have to make do with its moniker of world’s factory.

Huge population has huge surpluses and it is no longer an asset, but a liability, where it is China or India. What matters is a continuous inflow of working and innovating population, something that made America the world power in the last century.

But America may outsource its powers to the new group, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) it is trying to set up with India, Japan, and Australia, as a remote-control over China.

These democracies will be the real challenge to China in the 21st century.

And this will perhaps be the contribution of Covid-19 to geopolitics.

How Biden plans to speed past, and stop China!

If Joe Biden successfully launches two of his favourite multi-trillion dollar infrastructure projects, in and out of America, he may well go down in history as one of the most successful American Presidents.

In March, he proposed two highly-ambitious infrastructure projects: the first one will challenge China’s mammoth $3.7 trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to commercially connect over 100 countries across three continents; and the other aims to revamp the USA’s ageing infrastructure, pegged at $2.3 billion, in the next eight years.

On the foreign policy front, Biden proposed a ‘democratic’ rival to BRI during a telephonic conversation with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week. He suggested founding an initiative from democratic countries to rival China’s BRI at a time tensions spike between Beijing and the West.

Recently, the US President had declared that he would prevent China from passing the US to emerge the world’s most powerful nation, and he vowed to invest heavily to ensure America prevailed in the ever-growing rivalry between the world’s two largest economies.

“I suggested that we should have, essentially, a similar initiative coming from the democratic states, helping those communities around the world that, in fact, need help”, Biden told reporters, referring to BRI.

Since President-for-Life Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, China has been trying to increase influence by ‘debt-trapping’ some countries, raising concerns among regional powers and the West.

The BRI has, in fact, come as a major geopolitical challenge to the West as China has helped many countries to build infrastructure. China has enrolled over 100 countries for cooperation in the BRI projects like railways, ports, highways and other infrastructure.

As of mid-2020, more than 2,600 projects were linked to the BRI, but 20 percent of them had been “seriously affected” by the global pandemic. Some countries have also pushed back their BRI projects as costly and unnecessary. They forced Beijing to scale back some plans by asking it to review, cancel or scale down commitments, citing concerns over costs, erosion of sovereignty, and corruption. Even the BRI’s flagship project, the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPAC) has virtually stopped mid-way.

While Biden’s ‘BRI-II’ plan is yet to take wings, he has also proposed  another, multi-trillion dollar plan to revamp ageing infrastructure of the USA itself, and position Washington to out-compete Beijing.

The proposed $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan is expected to create millions of ‘good paying’ jobs and rebuild the American infrastructure in what officials deem as a “once-in-a-century capital investment” in America. “By this investment, over the next eight years, we can transform our current and future infrastructure and fundamentally change life for Americans”, officials said.

“If passed alongside President Biden’s Made in America corporate tax plan, it would be fully paid for within the next 15 years and reduce deficits in the years after. This plan will bring public investment as a share of the economy back to where it was in the 1960s, the last time we made transformative investments in our nation’s infrastructure,” they said.

Currently, the US ranks 13th in global infrastructure. Delays caused by traffic congestion alone cost over $160 billion per annum, and motorists are forced to pay over $ 1,000 every year in wasted time and fuel.

The Biden plan proposes to invest $620 billion in transportation infrastructure, which will modernise 20,000 miles of highways, roads and main streets. It will also fix the 10 most economically-significant bridges in need of reconstruction, and repair the worst 10,000 smaller bridges, reconnecting communities across the country.

Also, it will spark the electric vehicle revolution, building a network of 500,000 Electric Vehicles (EV) chargers, replace 50,000 diesel transit vehicles, electrify at least 20 per cent of the yellow bus fleet, and help consumers purchase the vehicles of tomorrow, media reports quoting the White House said.

The plan will make the new infrastructure more resilient to climate change. Some 40 per cent of the benefits of the climate and clean infrastructure investments will flow back to the disadvantaged communities.

As part of the plan, investments of $650 billion will reconnect communities and transform the way Americans live.

The plan will deliver universal broadband access, including to the more than 35 per cent of rural Americans who currently lack access, in addition to the underserved communities that cannot afford it. It will entirely replace the nation’s lead pipes and service lines and reduce lead exposure in 400,000 schools and childcare centers. It will also lay thousands of miles of transmission lines, making the electric grid more resilient. It will build, renovate, and retrofit more than 2 million homes and housing units.

The plan will also repair schools, community colleges, childcare facilities, and federal buildings, including the veterans’ hospitals. It will cap hundreds of thousands of orphan oil and gas wells and abandoned mines, putting many people to work in communities that have been affected by the market-based transition to clean energy.

The American Jobs Plan will invest $400 billion in the care economy. The plan will support well-paying caregiving jobs that include benefits and the ability to collectively bargain.

Besides, the plan invests $580 billion in Research and Development (R&D), manufacturing and training, and $50 billion in domestic semiconductor manufacturing, securing the US leadership in a global market that supplies critical inputs for almost all goods — from cars to refrigerators to computers.

The US also proposed to fundamentally reform the corporate tax code so that it incentivises job creation and investment in the United States, stops unfair and wasteful profit shifting to tax havens, and ensures that large corporations are paying their fair share, the officials said.

One key element of the plan is to raise the corporate tax rate to 28 percent. The rate will remain lower than at any point since World War II other than the years since the 2017 tax act.

Immigration: New US laws may help Trump bounce back in 2024

He had hinted that he will return. For now, Donald Trump is, since the accession of President Joe Biden in January 2021, lying low. He has reasons to smile and announce his candidacy for the 2024 presidential election.

Angry Trumpites—chiefly the conservative Republicans and the White supremacists, in the “Bible Belt”—had created mayhem in Washington DC on January 4, 2021, when the US Congress met to confirm Biden’s election as the 46th President in the November 2020 election, which the outgoing President had dubbed as a ‘massive voter fraud’ perpetrated by the Democrats.

Additionally, within two months, Biden, 78, has proved that he is too old, ageing faster, and forgetful, a deadly combination for any leader, particularly for the President of the “world’s only superpower”. Last November, he broke his leg. This week, he addressed Vice President Kamala Harris as “President”, and stumbled, thrice, while boarding his official aircraft, Air Force One. The White House had a difficult time claiming his ‘good health’, as the video of his stumble went viral all over the world.

In contrast, Trump, 74, is robust, full of energy, and in fighting spirit. Even  leaders of new American ‘Asian NATO’ partner countries are likewise: Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga (72), Indian PM Narendra Modi (70), and Australian PM Scott Morrison (52).

Even China’s President-for-Life Xi Jinping is only 67.

Clearly, Biden is the oldest of them all. And age, and falling health, are catching up with him: in 2024, he will be 81, and Trump 77.

Besides, Trump has reason to be optimistic about his next run, thanks to the new immigration laws the Biden Administration has just got through.

These may potentially open the ‘floodgates’ for foreign immigrants, strengthening Trump’s voter-base. In the next four years, the White Americans would helplessly watch more ‘coloured’ people flooding in from across all borders, including Mexico, and change the very complexion and demographic composition of America.

The US House of Representatives (Lower House of Parliament) has just passed two key bills that would ease getting American citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, some migrant farmworkers and children whose parents immigrated legally to the country, like those under the H-1B visa program. The bills will now go to the Upper House (Senate), which must pass before the President signs to make them law.

Describing it as a critical first step in “reforming” America’s immigration system, President Biden welcomed the passage of the fresh bill, the American Dream, and the Promise Act of 2021. The House passed it on Thursday by 228-197 votes.

It will provide relief to Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders and Dreamers, young people who entered the US as children and know no other country. “I support this bill, and commend the House of Representatives for passing this important legislation,” Biden said.

Those known as ‘dreamers’ are basically undocumented immigrants who enter the country as children with parents. The US has nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants from all over the world, including more than 500,000 from India, a policy document issued by the Biden campaign in November 2020, had revealed.

Indian-Americans are the third most influential community in the US. Currently, they constitute about 2 percent of the total population of 331 million, or nearly 7 million. 

Among others, the bill also provides relief for legal dreamers, the foreign-born children of non-immigrant workers, including those on H-1B visas, who lose their legal status once they reach 21 years of age. It would allow many other promising young people to pursue their ‘American Dream’.

The H-1B visa, the most sought after among Indian IT professionals, is a non-immigrant visa that allows American companies to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations requiring theoretical or technical expertise. Technology companies depend on it to hire tens of thousands of employees each year from countries like India and China.

“My administration looks forward to working together with Congress to do the right thing for Dreamers and TPS holders who contribute so much to our country, and to building a 21st-century immigration system that is grounded in dignity, safety, and fairness… to create a path to citizenship for the undocumented population in the United States”, Biden said.

The American Dream and Promise Act establishes a path to Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) status for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients and for certain individuals who either held or were eligible for TPS or Deferred Enforced Departure (DED).

The majority of these individuals have been in the United States for much of their lives, often with work authorization and temporary protection against deportation.

Five years after attaining full LPR status, individuals are then eligible to apply for citizenship, a path that is supported by nearly 75 percent of the American public, Indian-American Congressman Ami Bera said.

This legislation is protecting Dreamers, TPS, and DED recipients honor the truth that immigrants are the constant reinvigoration of our country, when they come here with their hopes and dreams and aspirations, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the original sponsor of the Dream Act said that “the legislative solution was long overdue for Dreamers who have devoted their lives to our country, undocumented migrant farmworkers doing backbreaking agricultural work during this pandemic to keep food on our tables.”

Undocumented immigrants are believed to be one of the largest groups among the immigrant essential workforce, making up 5.2 million essential workers, of which nearly one million are Dreamers, part of the 2019 American Dream and Promise Act, who entered the US as children.

Another legislation, the Farm Workforce Modernisation Act, will allow unauthorized farmworkers to earn legal status in the US and update temporary agricultural worker programs to meet the economy’s needs. It will provide H-2A eligibility to employers having year-round labor needs, which is critical for dairy and livestock.

According to New American Economy, more than 500,000 DACA-eligible immigrants are essential workers, including 62,000 in the healthcare industry alone.

Senator Dianne Feinstein said that since Obama created DACA in 2012 to temporarily protect Dreamers, more than 800,000 individuals have registered for the program. California is home to the most DACA recipients, more than one in four live in our state.

These young people didn’t break the law, many were brought here as babies or small children by their parents. They now go to school, work, and pay taxes here in the United States. They are US citizens in all but name, she said.

The 2024 electoral battle for the next US Presidency, therefore, is expected to be between the old immigrants and the new ones.