China, International Affairs

U.S. Rise In Defense Spending And What It Could Mean

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According to President Obama’s 2016 budget blueprint, he will be asking Congress to break through spending caps and allocate about $561 billion for Pentagon expenditures, about $38 billion more than is currently allowed under the law. However, there are more than one ways of looking at this development.

1) Domestically, Obama who is seen to be soft on defense-related issues, with this overarching move may be trying to emphasize his government’s focus on defense especially in the run up to the elections.

2) Increase in defense budget also signals urgency to take pre-emptive measures to safeguard national and international security especially with the rise of ISIS and burgeoning of security threats emerging out of Middle East and North Africa.

3) It is also worth noting that the budget proposal seeks $14 billion for cybersecurity efforts which is about $1 billion more than in previous budgets. The increase shows the priorities of the US which is clearly shifting from treating cyber warfare as secondary threat to primary one.

4) Increase in defense spending also sends a message across to NATO countries, which the US has been calling on to increase their defense budgets in light of growing turmoil in the region vis-a-vis Ukraine conflict and Russian involvement. Interestingly, just days earlier it was announced that the US was ending operations at an air base in Britain and handing it and 14 other sites in Europe back to their home governments due to budgetary constraints.

6) It also means that the US is looking to acquire many advanced weapon systems, focused on air and naval power. The US is also looking to upgrade stealth jets from fifth generation to sixth generation as China unveiled its J-31 stealth fighter to compete with the U.S.-made F-35 stealth aircraft last year. China is strengthening its standing as an arms producer and that should be a clear motivation for the US to ramp up military capability for not just national security but also to continue leading arms exports market.

7) Possible need for increase in the budget also reflects Obama’s focus on deeper defense engagement in Asia. The Japanese cabinet this month, approved a record 4.98 trillion yen or $42bn budget for defense spending, amid a long-running maritime dispute with China.Tokyo’s new budget represents a 2.8% rise from the previous fiscal year. Despite Japan’s economic woes, it is continuing to increase its defense spending year by year.This shows the growing uneasiness in Asia with rising China, and hence seeking a greater involvement from the US.

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China, India, International Affairs, Uncategorized

Modi’s idea of India

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On September 11, 1893 with his soul-stirring speech at the The Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, Swami Vivekananda one of the most revered Hindu monks in India, brought Hinduism to the status of a major world religion. Centuries later, a man who considers him his disciple, also the current Prime Minister of India is leaving no stone unturned to bring Hinduism back to the world’s attention.

Prime Minister Modi’s proposal of creating International Yoga Day during his speech at the UN General Assembly has become a reality after a resolution was passed with overwhelming majority to create June 21st the International Yoga Day. While many who pursue yoga ignore its religious aspect, the Bhagavad Gita (the Hindu scripture that is part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata) makes it clear that yoga requires not only dedication and discipline but also a devotion to God. Yoga though debatable, has spiritual dimensions rooted in Hindu thoughts and ideologies and Modi’s promotion of it at a global scale is a one of the prongs of his cultural diplomacy that seems to be primarily based on bringing fame and recognition to Hinduism.

Modi swears by sacred Hindu scriptures like Bhagavad Geeta, Ramayana and Mahabharata from which he churns out his historical insights about ancient India and how the Hindu civilization has evolved over time. From technology to reproductive genetics he has all the answers sorted out about its origins in Indian civilization through the examples he cites from Hindu mythological scriptures.

It was no surprise when Modi gifted Obama a Khadi-wrapped Bhagawad Geeta after he had gifted the same (without khadi cover) to Chinese and Japanese counterparts in Mandarin and Japanese respectively. India being a secular and a democratic country, it didn’t take long for a section of Indian media to criticize Modi for practicing shadow communalism through his choice of gift. But Modi in his defence says, he has nothing more valuable to give and the world has nothing more valuable to get. Obama didn’t do less on his part to give Modi his piece of mind by gifting him a book on the 1893 summit of world religions—possibly prodding Modi to build an inclusive government and respecting all religions.

During his trip to Nepal – a Hindu majority secular country – Modi made the ostentatious gesture of gifting 2500 kilos of precious Sandalwood and 2400 kilos of ghee (clarified butter used to alight lamp) to the revered temple of Hindus, Pasupatinath temple. Modi’s gift added upto INR 4 crores or USD 640,000.

In Australia, Narendra Modi gifted Australian PM Abbot a book on yoga while Abbott in addition to Nehru jacket, handed over two antique statues of Hindu deities, which were allegedly stolen from temples in Tamil Nadu before being bought by art galleries in Australia.

In Japan, Modi struck a deal to modernize ancient religious city of Varanasi that lies on the banks of the river Hindus consider the most sacred – The Ganga.

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Modi has used international attention on him to make a statement about Indian values and culture including Hinduism. Be it fasting for a Hindu festival when Obama was hosting a dinner in his honor at the White House or gifting a Khadi jacket to the Chinese President Xi Jinping or even sharing a traditional Indian swing watching a sunset along the historic Sabarmati River where Gandhi broke the Salt Law during Colonial rule. His promotion of Hindi language was also apparent when he chose the language to address the UN General Assembly despite knowing English. Modi very well knows the art of promoting a cause. During his time as the Chief Minister of Gujarat he transformed state from just another state into a bustling tourist hub with his successful “Vibrant Gujarat” campaign. Even his self-promotion during elections which had him win the elections with huge margins is a testimony to his good communication skills. His strong public relation skills are also ingrained in his style of diplomacy. Only this time his cause and methods have changed. His cause is selling the world the India he has come to know through the eyes of Hinduism and spiritualism, and method is diplomacy.

Could Modi gift the Bhagavad Geeta to leaders in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia? We shall wait and see.

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International Affairs

What U.S. reversal on Cuba means for the world

Giving the future generation reasons to not yawn while going over his presidency, Obama in a historic move declared the resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba – after the ties were severed with the emergence of communism in Cuban politics in 1961.

It is clearly a big deal for the US and Cuba to come together to an understanding and in one stroke undoing all the history the world had known so well.

But what could this mean for the world?

Though a small Caribbean island nation, everybody from the Middle East to China should be interested in this development.

For the U.S. allies in the Middle East, it is a sign that Washington’s foreign policy may not always play by the rules of history and may even go to the extent of reversing it. In international relations, reliability and predictability are known to be the two anchors of peace. But with the U.S. courting Iran vis-à-vis nuclear agreement and now Cuba, this may be a perfect recipe for nightmare for the monarchs in the Gulf kingdoms. Not to mention, Washington maintaining tougher than usual stance on Bahrain and its curtailing of human rights.

The announcement is a big psychological blow to Russians who are in a perfect position to revert ties with the U.S. to the irritable one of the Cold War era. Putin’s visit to Cuba this year screamed of Moscow’s commitment to keep Cuba in its sphere of influence. From the reports of opening of Soviet-era spy base in Cuba to those of offering $32 billion aid and to waive off 90% of Cuba’s debt, Putin’s visit was full of news items that should tell the world about Moscow’s commitment to keeping Cuba estranged from the U.S.

China who never tried to pitch itself as the perfect friend of Cuba should certainly be worried, especially economically. With the opening up of relations, Obama has certainly started a process that will eventually lead to greater economic cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba. Simply, because Havana has the market and appetite for American goods and services and of course great need for investments in the renewable energy sector, and the U.S. on its part has formally done the unthinkable by unconditionally accepting the communist leadership – the one it was reportedly working actively underground to crush.

The US Congress will have to give a go-ahead before the U.S. lifts trades embargo on Cuba but once the initial hurdles are crossed, China’s investments from energy to agriculture will certainly be affected in the place it never thought it would have to compete. The waters off the island nation’s northern coast are believed to contain oil, but Chinese and other oil companies have been reluctant to explore for oil because of fears of angering the US.  With possible normalization of ties with Washington, Cuba would be able to tap into American technology and investments to revive its energy sector.

Venezuela, the country with the world’s largest oil reserves, which until few years ago was the lifeline of oil supply to Cuba, recently for the first time in its 100-year history of oil production, started importing crude, leaving Cubans little options but to look for other avenues for energy needs. This deal with the U.S. is as much about recreating history as it is about pragmatism and mutual profit.

It is too early to say if Cuba and the U.S. will take the path of excessive cooperation or reluctant dependency, but there is no denying that Obama before the end of his presidency will wish to see himself as the president who achieved something substantial by undoing history.

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Travelogue, Travelogues

Bhutan, the land of thunder dragon : A travelogue

Bhutan

The Little Himalayan kingdom with a big heart

I don’t think I would have traveled to Bhutan had it not been a cheap travel abroad alternative to other more glorified destinations like Switzerland or France. But, a week of travelling in Bhutan was a loud scream at the fact the country is special.

Keen to travel abroad at domestic fares, we took a flight from New Delhi to Bagdogra Airport in West Bengal, the Indian state bordering Bhutan. It was a four hour journey from the airport to Phuentshellong, the border town of Bhutan. The town is important only for overnight stay and getting an entrance permit, from where Thimpu is another five-hour drive. 

Before granting permit, Bhutanese officials take finger prints to enter into their system. A tourist guide pointed to me that this was “some kind of new technology”. I was charmed. It was after an hour of waiting to be screened by Bhutanese officials, that I heard the news of their server crashing. Small country, small servers, I imagined. And then one of the officials retired to reading her novel, while the other put her head down on the desk, while all us anxious Indians stood in awe of their absolute indifference to the developing chaos. This is just a small example of the carefree nature of Bhutanese people. They all have a Phd in patience.

Thimpu is the most densely populated city in Bhutan. With a national population of about 8 lakhs, Bhutan, at all times feels vacant. But, that emptiness is fascinating, it is not depressive. People seem happy and content.

Travelling within Bhutan is like a run through nature’s most beautiful gifts. You will be pampered to the limits by the mother Earth, gorgeous valleys, pristine rivers, lofty mountains, rainbows, whatever you know about nature’s beauty, will be in your face, all while the cool breeze embraces you in its unabashed love.

The best thing about Bhutan is the lack of sightseeing options. You don’t waste time going from one place to another holding your itinerary, walking in and out of gates. It is a place that doesn’t demand you to rush.It is a lesson in appreciating life and all things simple.

 

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India, International Affairs

5 types of Indian voters

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1) Sure shots — They know who they want to vote and why.

2) Young and restless — They will vote for any party which offers excitement. Aam Admi Party is one such entertainment churner.

3) Illiterates — They will vote for anybody who has championed the knack of giving false hopes.

4) Over-educated— These people don’t care about participating in elections but won’t hesitate to lecture on it. If you ask them if they are voting or not they will tell you how fucked up the country is.

5) Guilt shedders — They will do anything to avoid embarrassment. These people are too conscious of the advertisements poking fun at people who don’t vote. They don’t want to be looked with raised eyebrows in social gatherings. They will flash inked fingers as a sign of having avoided embarrassment.

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International Affairs

Profile: Sergei Lavrov

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I read five random articles on Russia’s masterful Foreign Minister, here are the 20 things I found, listed in no particular order.

1. He loves scotch and wine. Middle East drove him crazy because of lack of alcohol.

2. He smokes like a chimney. When the U.N. banned smoking in 2003, he staged his own protest, refusing to stop puffing while complaining that then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan “doesn’t own this building.”

3. He is considered to be one of the fiercest and most formidable diplomats of current times.

4. He is ubiquitously described by officials and diplomats as funny, clever, charming, intellectually powerful and intelligent.

5. He doesn’t hesitate to disagree and drives home the point rather sarcastically, leaving his contemporaries agitated yet impressed.

6. He likes to play chess and write poetry.

7. He is all for “assertive” foreign policy. He is inspired by Aleksandr Gorchakov, influential Russian diplomat who denounced Paris Treaty and increased Russia’s naval presence in the Black Sea.

8. He seems to be loved and hated almost equally.

9. He used to participate in drama performances during college.

10. His time as the Russian envoy to the U.N. was about defying U.S. and devising ways to exercise the right to veto. Because of his frequent use of veto in the UN Security Council on Syria in the recent times, Western pundits have called him Mr. Nyet (“Mr. No”), a title devised for his Cold War predecessor, Andrei Gromyko.

11. He is quite patriotic. Bashing U.S. may be his hobby but promoting Russia is his agenda. He has better equation with John Kerry than he had with Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton. This is debatable though.

12. Apparently, he is not in Putin’s circle of closest aides. The two have had their differences. However, their relationship seems to be improving after pro-Russia developments in Ukraine.

13. At the United Nations, Lavrov often dominated the Security Council with his cutting remarks and edgy humor.

14. He used to sketch doodles during interminable debates at the U.N. while keeping tabs on the proceedings.

15. He will disagree and he will let you know, rather imposingly. He could be a borderline bully.

16. Lavrov chided Clinton when the United States mistranslated the Russian word for “reset” on a button given as a gift in 2009 (the word actually meant “overcharge”), though it was relatively polite.

17. He has a dominating physical appearance — he’s known for his height and his athletic ability.

18. “He’s very informal in exercising formality, and a master of saying a lot while remaining tight-lipped. He weighs every word, but makes headlines for swearing. He meticulously sticks to protocol, yet has a reputation as a non-conformist.”

19. Developments in Ukraine including the annexation of Crimea has catapulted Lavrov’s diplomatic career to newer heights. Russia’s failure to restrict international intervention in Libya was probably one of the darkest times of his term as Russia’s foreign minister.

20. He can show flashes of anger. When a photographer asked Mr. Lavrov, Mr. Kerry and the special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, to pose after a meeting in Geneva, Mr. Lavrov said: “You don’t give us orders; you just capture the moment.”

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