China and India. Home to the world’s largest population and vying to overtake other in the race for economic ascent, military might and regional supremacy. Mr. Xi and Mr. Modi both are gung-ho to attract investment, diversify their economies and ramp up military. China is viewed as one amongst the world leaders whereas India is on its way to become one. However, this competition calls for tensions and conflicts.
One of these conflicts surfaced few weeks back, a stand-off between Chinese and Indian military in Doklam-Plateau, which overlooks the Siligiru corridor. To understand the “Why” one has to look at the map. Doklam plateau is situated in, what can be called, the tri-junction of Indian, Chinese and Bhutanese border. It has been termed Chicken’s Neck. The plateau overlooks Siligiru corridor through which most of the supply for Indian army, situated in Bhutan, passes. It connects India’s north-east to rest of the country. The claim is regarding a border issue, which dates back to 1890: “A treaty between Great Britain and China that delimited the border between Indian state of Sikkim and Tibet as well as boundary point with Bhutan”. India claims that the border is at Batang La, while China stresses it is at Mount Gimpochi three miles to south, if China is correct than the Doklam plateau falls under Chinese territory. The recent stand-off began when Chinese started to build a road on the plateau to help its troop patrols. Bhutan accusing China of territorial aggrandizement allowed Indian troops to cross the border. The Indian soldiers, then, formed a human chain to interdict the bulldozers and construction work. This camaraderie between Bhutan and India dates back to India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty 1949, which proposed that “neither country will allow its territory to be used for activities that harm other’s national security interests. AT its peak, the border had 3000 troops at each side.
According to an article in Foreign Policy, Bhutan also has some secret, informal and unofficial settlements with China as well and the latter is using it as a pretext to station their troops there: “That PLA action in Doklam may be based on a private understanding between China and Bhutan. Thus China deems it’s road-building in Doklam legitimate within this private, pre-settlement agreement”.
Considering that both countries have fought a war in 1962 in which the Chinese won, this recent stand-off, was significant and troublesome. The rivalry is not confined to borders only. The economic front is alive as well. China’s One Belt One Road initiative, a network of rail, road and maritime trade routes that aims to connect China to Eurasia, is a source of consternation for India. India’s counter-move to OBOR is India-Myanmar-Thailand highway, a 1,360 kilometer link giving India easy, effective and efficient access to markets in Thailand and Myanmar. Though not comparable in either size or number of countries it aims to connect, the project gives a clear view of growing tussle between two regional rivals. According to Bloomberg, “In the last two years alone, India has assigned more than $4.7 billion in contracts for the development of its border roads, as per the government figures”. There is a new policy, Act East, under which India aims to build more links to its north-eastern neighbors. Kaladan multimodal project connecting Indian ports in Kolkata and Myanmar’s Sittwe, is another project in the string of new initiatives that India plans to undertake.
Militarily things are also heating up. India is preparing to take the delivery of INS Kalvari one of the stealthiest submarines, named after a deep-water shark. This is one in many that India’s plans to buy or build in future as its navy fleet seems to shrink during recent decades. The opening of first naval base in Djibouti and the artificial islands built in South China Sea manifests the country’s plans and ambitions to control the region. If militaries of both countries are juxtaposed in facts and figures, China emerges as the winner. India has 1.2 million active military personnel whereas China touts a 2.3 million active military personnel base. In terms of tanks, artillery and aircrafts China is far ahead. The total number of submarines India has stands at 15 as compared to 68 Chinese ones. China also has an aircraft carrier. Nuclear stockpiles in India tops to 130 warheads, China 270. Chinese Intern-continental Ballistic Missile has a range of 15,000km. Indian’s have reached 6,000km maximum (a new missile is underway that is expected to by-pass the range of Chinese ICBM).
However, India has a natural geographic advantage in Indian Ocean. China has to cross Straits of Malacca to enter the Indian Ocean whereas India can access it anytime through its southern borders.
Both countries agreed to end the stand-off on 28th August. And most observers think that given the international standing of both countries the possibility of an all-out war, in future, remains very low. However, heated and caustic rhetoric, brinksmanship and a prolonged stand-off with either sides not succumbing, this game-of-chicken can take a wrong turn anytime. It is not only about borders. The recent stand-off exposed a chasm between the Asian giants that continues to widen. Matters have returned to “status quo” but this is not a permanent solution.
There has been a war between the two in 1962. Who knows, next time, things might get out of control, engulfing the neighbors as well. Given the extent of integration the world has achieved it is quite possible.
Note: This is one of the points which have the ingredients that may start an armed conflict. The other two: South China Sea and DPRK, which will be discussed in the next parts.
Thai universities must look beyond ranking
Bangkok – The recent 2018 Asia University Rankings published by the Times Higher Education (THE) magazine is calling attention for the state of Thai higher education.
Unlike its Asian neighbors, Thai universities are falling behind.
The National University of Singapore maintained its number one status for the third consecutive year due to its continuous improvement in teaching and research environments, greater citation impact and higher amounts of industrial income, said Ellie Bothwell of the Times Higher Education.
This year, the numbers of universities being ranked increased from 300 to 350 universities. Japanese universities are amongst the most qualified universities in Asia with 89 universities made it to the list. 63 universities from China are included in the top 350.
The picture looks worrisome for Thailand. Only ten universities made it. However, none of them was ranked in the top 50. The best performing university from Thailand was Mahidol– with ranking of 97th place, same as that in 2017, while the oldest higher education establishment, Chulalongkorn University, is only 167th place amongst 350 institutions.
Should we be concerned about this?
Yes, and no.
Given that ranking has been taken as a face value that it equates the overall quality of higher education, the poor performance sends a negative signal. It is a setback for Thailand’s aspiration to become the regional hub of education in Southeast Asia. How can we be a regional center when the best of our universities are far behind that of Singapore and Malaysia?
This is also bad for internationalization process. The low performance is discouraging for potential research partners and foreign students to come to Thailand. It lowers Thailand’s attractiveness and competitiveness.
While the results are not promising, what is worse is how they are used and interpreted by policymakers and the media to create, what professor Gita Steiner-Khamsi of Teachers College, Columbia University called “a scandalization effect”. That means, results from international league tables haven been used as external forces to generate reforms pressure at the local level.
Thailand is no exception. Since Asia Week published the first Asian universities ranking in 1997, Thai politicians, policymakers and the media have used the international results to create reform pressure. A decade long of higher education policy analysis confirmed that boosting the ranking seems to be the only policy goal for most Thai policymakers.
But ranking is not everything.
Mrs. Ruangrat Wongpramote, Assistant Secretary General of the Education Council poignantly said: “ranking helps us to mirror the reality. It is a good tool for us to know where we are standing in comparison with others. But it does not tell us everything. There are more pressing issues in Thai higher education.”
These issues include quality of the students, quality curriculum and quality teaching.
Firstly, Thailand has to shift its focus from quantity students to quality students.
For the past 100 years, the system has done well in terms of access. There were only five universities in the first 50 years of Thai higher education and all of them were established in Bangkok Metropolitan area. Now the official record reported that there are 151 universities across the country – with 81 public universities and 75 universities in most of provinces. The expansion has made it available for more than 2 million enrollments.
While the massification provides more equitable educational opportunities for students, the mismatch between skills and jobs requirement, low quality of English proficiency and lack of critical thinking are amongst key issues that need to be seriously addressed.
Secondly, Thai curriculum needs to be upgraded. The Office of Higher Education Commission has implemented Thailand Qualification Framework or TQF with the hope of improving and standardizing Thai curriculum. However, what the government has had in mind is counter-productive to improvement of the curriculum.
TQF is academics worst nightmare. It requires academics to fill in lengthy lesson plans, detailed description of their syllabus and anticipated unimaginable outcomes. The rubrics are demanding and micro-managing. Instead of improving curriculum, academics report they cut and pasted, worst, lied just to complete the form.
This policy takes away precious class preparation time for nonsensical administrative things.
A more efficient and collegial way of improving the curriculum is needed.
Thirdly, quality teaching must be improved. Large classrooms are not in and of themselves problematic. But ones that are passive, top-down and lecture-based are outdated. Lecturers must work harder than regurgitating the texts to students. Classrooms need to be conducive space for learning where conceptual debates, analytical discussion and constructive dialogues are promoted. In the era where students can google to get basic facts, university students must be pushed harder to think critically. Students must learn to ask difficult questions and come up with creative answers.
A bad ranking is a good wake up call. But what we will do about it is what matters most.
Malaysia’s Efforts in Improving Education: Lessons for Developing Countries
Malaysia’s efforts to tackle education challenges, particularly through the establishment of a ‘delivery unit’ that tracks results, can help other countries seeking to improve implementation in the sector, says a new World Bank report.
The report, Improving Education Sector Performance: Lessons from the Delivery Unit Approach, highlights the role of the Education Performance and Delivery Unit, or PADU, under the Ministry of Education, in improving education outcomes, a key government priority.
The report examines how PADU facilitated program implementation and delivery of results through the Literacy and Numeracy Screening program, or LINUS. Unlike other interventions, the LINUS task force – comprised of several divisions – worked closely with agencies across government to provide an effective framework for coordination, tracking, monitoring and reporting.
“Following the World Bank’s analysis of the LINUS approach, we are glad to share the approach with other countries seeking to improve education outcomes,” said Dato’ Seri Mahdzir bin Khalid, Minister of Education. “As we progress, we will constantly refine ways of delivery and continue to engage relevant institutions such as the World Bank to gather feedback and improve implementation.”
The Government Transformation Program, announced in 2009, set improving education outcomes as a key priority, and a detailed plan in the Malaysian Education Blueprint followed. Making improving education outcomes a national priority can elevate the profile, stakes, and resourcing for the initiative. Building in evaluations of impact into the program design would further bolster efforts to improve education outcomes.
“The delivery of the essentials of a thriving nation – better schools, healthcare, public transportation – is a mutual goal of all nations, but implementation is a common challenge. The delivery unit approach taken by Malaysia is a creative and effective way to address this challenge,” said Faris Hadad-Zervos, World Bank Group Representative to Malaysia. “This report distills useful lessons learnt in improving the performance of its education sector, and makes recommendations to bring Malaysia one step closer towards its aspirations of becoming a high-income country.”
The study is the latest installment in the World Bank Group’s Outbound Knowledge Report Series that curates, distils and disseminates Malaysia’s development experience. This report is part of the Malaysia Development Experience Series, which strives to capture key learnings from Malaysia that are relevant for developing countries around the globe as they transition out of poverty and into shared prosperity.
Asia’s dark underbelly: Conflicts threaten long-term stability and development
A host of conflicts, stretching across the Asian landmass from the Middle East to Southeast Asia and northwest China, are likely to spark violence, complicate economic development, and dash hopes for sustainable stability.
The conflicts and tensions range from ethnic strife in Kurdish areas of Syria and Iran, mortally wounded Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, embattled Baloch nationalism in Pakistan, disposed Rohingya in Southeast Asia, and widespread discontent in Iran, to iron-grip repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Xinjiang. Individually and collectively, they promise to create black swans and festering wounds that threaten economic growth and social development.
Stripped to their bare essence, the conflicts and tensions have one thing in common: a quest for either cultural, ethnic or national, or political rights or a combination of those, that governments not only refuse to recognize but are willing to suppress with brutal force.
Repression and military action are designed to suppress political, ethnic and/or national, and economic and social grievances in the false belief that a combination of long-term suppression and economic development will weaken ethnic and/or national and political aspirations as well as undermine dissent.
That is true in case of the Rohingya and Uyghurs as well as for brutal repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and northwest China, and military actions such as the Turkish intervention in Syria’s Afrin.
Problems in the Middle East and South Asia are aggravated by a debilitating struggle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran that threaten to destabilize the Islamic republic and Pakistan, have already produced a devastating war and a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, and are dragging the Horn of Africa into its orbit.
If history teaches anything, it is that only a minority of autocrats have achieved economic and social development. General Augusto Pinochet ensured that Chile is the only South American member of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), albeit at a high human cost, while Asia gave birth to tigers like South Korea and Taiwan.
Moreover, Asia’s multiple conflicts and tensions do not distract from the fact that by and large, the continent is flourishing economically.
History, however, also teaches that ethnic and/or national aspirations explode with vehemence the moment opportunity arises. Seventy years of communist rule in the Soviet Union failed to smother nationalist sentiment in parts of the empire like Chechnya and the Caucasus or erase nationalist differences between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Forty-seven years of communism did not prevent nationalist sentiment from breaking Yugoslavia apart in a series of bloody wars in the 1990s in the wake of the demise of the Iron Curtain.
Carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire, modern Turkey has failed to erase demands for Kurdish cultural, if not ethnic or national aspirations, through economic development and political integration based on the principle of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who founded the republic, that “happy is he who is a Turk.”
Similarly, Palestinian nationalism is alive and kicking 51 years into Israeli occupation of lands conquered during the 1967 Middle East war.
The aftermath of the 2011 Arab popular revolts, involving a concerted counterrevolution co-engineered by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, has laid bare the essence of current conflicts and disputes: a determination of regimes to impose policies on minorities or states at whatever cost.
The UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar is a case in point as are Asia’s multiple ethnic conflicts. They erupt in a world in which post-colonial borders are being called into question in countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Myanmar and Pakistan.
The Rohingya, amid the dizzying array of ethnic and national conflicts stretching from the Middle East or West Asia to China in the East, exemplify the problem in, perhaps, its purest form. Potentially, the Rohingya could become Southeast Asia’s Palestine.
What makes the Rohingya unique is the fact that their aspiration, unlike Palestinians, Kurds, Baloch or Uyghurs, does not involve attachment to a specific piece of land despite a centuries-old history in the Myanmar state of Rakhine. That is also what potentially enables creative thinking about a solution that could open the door to innovative thinking about a multitude of other conflicts.
To many Rohingya, lingering in abysmal conditions in Bangladesh’s Cox Bazaar, after some 650,000 fled repression and terror in Myanmar, securing a sense of belonging on whatever territory that guarantees them protection from persecution as well as economic and social development, is more important than returning to an uncertain existence in Rakhine state. “All I want, is a place to which I can belong,” one refugee said.
Few Rohingya, analysts and officials believe that an agreement that in theory allows Rohingya in Bangladesh to return to Rakhine state will solve the problem. Even if the Rohingya were allowed to return in significant numbers, something that many doubt, nothing in Myanmar government policies and statements suggests that they would be anything more than a barely tolerated, despised ethnic group in a country that does not welcome them.
The makings of a Palestine-like conflict that would embroil not only Myanmar but also Bangladesh and that could spread its tentacles further abroad are evident. In a rare interview with Al Jazeera, Mohammed, a spokesman for the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) using a false name, predicted that suicide bombings constitute the next phase of their effort to secure a safe and stable existence.
The Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation, a charity associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of South Asia’s deadliest groups, claimed in December that it had established operations in Rakhine state where it had distributed blankets and cash.
“We attacked them (the Myanmar military) because they refuse to give us our basic rights as citizens. Again and again, [the] Myanmar government lies to the world. They say they treat us well and give us rights, but they don’t. We are unable to travel from one place to another. We are not allowed to run a business. We are not allowed to go to university. The police and military use various way to suppress us. They beat, torture and humiliate us. That is why we decided to stand up,” Mohammed said.
Preventing the Rohingya issue from spiralling out of control and becoming a problem that can no longer be contained to a specific territory, much like the multitude of similar conflicts, disputes, and repression-based regime survival strategies across Asia, requires out-of-the box thinking. Short-term repression and efforts to impose one party’s will at best buys time and sets the scene for avoidable explosions.
With out-of-the-box thinking a rare commodity, nationalism and protectionism on the rise, and regimes, emboldened by an international community unwilling to stand up for basic rights, able to go to extremes like the use of chemical weapons against rebels in the Syrian province of Idlib, long-term prospects for stable and secure development in Asia are dimmed and potentially threatened by predictable black swans.
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