Why all this tension?

One may say that the struggle for power among major blocs has always been around. But we are increasingly coming across leaders in whose vocabulary the word ‘compromise’ is being replaced by ‘stubbornness’

On 12th July 2016, the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, Netherlands – the same court which dealt with our case regarding Britain’s unilateral decision to install a marine protected area around the Chagos – rendered its award in a dispute the Philippines had lodged in 2012 before it against claims put up by China in what is called the South China Sea. Considering all aspects of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Tribunal concluded that “there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’”.

It may be recalled that China had on previous occasions claimed having historical exclusive rights to an area it had marked on the map with nine dashes in the disputed waters. This stand on the part of China ruffled up feelings of littoral countries, including the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. The line of demarcation of China’s territorial claims came near the doorstep of some of the concerned South East Asian countries. It is what had led the Philippines to lodge the matter before the arbitral tribunal in respect of which the award was made.

Tensions were high because China had declared, at the time the Philippines asked the Tribunal to look into the dispute, that it will “neither accept nor participate in the arbitration initiated by the Philippines”. In fact, tensions mounted in the region not only when China claimed the part of the ocean it had marked with the “nine-dash line”. They heightened up when it undertook the construction of several artificial islands on shoals in the ocean bed, which neighbouring countries, such as Vietnam and Japan, suspected to be military installations in fact. The US is also being drawn into the neighbouring conflict since it has defence agreements with countries (such as Philippines). The mounting tension between the big powers in the zone is disquieting and escalation can hurt an already weakened global economy.

It is worth recalling that the seas in question constitute an important international trade route. Around $5 trillion worth of international shipping trade plies annually through the disputed sea. It is in nobody’s interest, not even in the interest of China, to heighten the tension at a time international economic conditions aren’t quite promising. In fact, it would be in China’s interest to help grow the volume of international trade, given that it has recently seen a dip in its own economic rate of growth. Escalation of the tension is also not good for the US which recently entered into the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) grouping a dozen countries of the region with America as the nucleus, but to the exclusion of China. Its warships in the disputed region do not augur well for easing down tensions.

Politicians sometimes create international tensions in order to distract attention away from domestic economic and social problems. This is what was being said, for example, about Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine and Syria.

It was believed this changed the focus away from the negative impact on Russians’ falling internal standard of living arising from international sanctions and international oil prices going down as from mid-2014 (Russia is next only to Saudi Arabia in terms of volume of oil exports). But Russia may rightly feel aggrieved at and directly threatened by NATO’s attempts to set up a missile shield in certain East European countries (part of the Soviet Union until 1989) next door to it. In the process, Europe felt seriously challenged as regards its supply of oil and gas from the East. European economic disruption was close at hand and averted in time.

One may say that the struggle for power among major blocs has always been around. But we are increasingly coming across leaders in whose vocabulary the word ‘compromise’ is being replaced by ‘stubbornness’. Nationalism without a clear alternative economic agenda has increasingly been gaining ground in Europe, the last such example being Britain itself. An attack by China’s military on one of the US warships plying in the South China Sea in the current tense condition has the potential to aggravate an already underperforming global economy.

The most egregious example of this lack of stability in global affairs has been coming from groupings like the Islamic State in the Middle East. Not only is the entire Middle East being maintained as a boiling cauldron likely to burst anywhere anytime. There is no leadership capable of reining in the anarchy it has given rise to.

No one knows for sure how all this vindication of superiority over all others will give way to something more sober in terms of governance so that the global economy could perform more predictably.

Often, this tension travels to other countries like France, unnerving the world economy’s capacity to collect itself after the 2007-08 collapse and the little amount of recovery registered so far in specific places. Even after a change of government, a place like Nigeria lives in perpetual fear of the havoc that may be wreaked against its oil pipelines by Islamic militants.

When economic growth was high in the decades prior to 2007, some of these destabilising problems were here but manageable. China was growing in the double digits per annum; India was also pulling along. Hundreds of millions of utterly poor people were being lifted out of their dire conditions. As economic growth slowed down subsequently and domestic instability increased, the process halted rather brutally and hundreds of thousands of migrants started risking their lives for a better future outside their home countries.

This is a far cry from the days emerging countries were facing some structural economic problems but were extricated one after the other from their plight with the tough medicines prescribed by the IMF and the World Bank to a more sustainable path. Now, geopolitical passions are so intense they undermine the probability of bringing up a cohesive plan the world could have adopted to get out of the widespread mess on a better sharing basis.

It is time these fires are quenched for the good of those at the bottom who may pass out before they even see a spark of economic well-being from an entire life of drudgery.

* * *


Chitmansing Jesseramsing

Mauritius has been rapidly losing a generation of its public servants who had a commitment to the cause they stood for. Chitmansing Jesseramsing (Jess) was of them. He belonged to a generation which wanted to pull Mauritius out of its splendid isolation with all the efforts they could muster, whichever compartment of national life they were engaged in, unmindful of the constraints we faced due to our small size and geopolitical un-importance. Their aim was to turn all such preconceptions on their head by making Mauritius succeed where least it was expected to.

Jess joined our diplomatic service in 1968 when he was posted to Washington DC as First Secretary. He stayed there until 1993, on becoming Mauritius’ Ambassador to the US as from 1979. As circumstances would have it, he had another engagement as our Ambassador to the US between 1996 and 1999. Even after he relinquished his substantive job as our ambassador, he kept contributing to bring to a successful end the enterprise he had embarked on, transcending local political divides.

Having a natural amiable disposition, he rapidly earned the esteem of several of his international colleagues in the diplomatic corps posted in the American capital. Soon after, along with his African colleagues, he was to raise the awareness of America – which had other horses to flog according to its geopolitical interests — to Africa’s sad economic plight and to its (America’s) relative neglect of the deprived regions of this continent. His diplomatic skills and high-level contacts in the US administrative machinery were to bear fruit, if not immediately as it often happens in negotiations, at the right time when Mauritius was in need of preferential market access. He did the intricate groundwork for bringing Mauritius closer to the US.

It is against this background of building-up that the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) was eventually signed up in May 2000 between the US and selective African member countries participating in the underlying favourable trade arrangement, thus opening up the US market to our exports, along with certain other African countries. Mauritius’ access to duty-free exports under the AGOA gave us breathing space at a time the economy was stated to be going into a “state of economic emergency” due to factors such as the dismantling of the Multi-Fibre Agreement confronting our exports to competition from giants like China. The AGOA is still on and has, in fact, been recently extended to 2025 with Mauritius as one of the African participating states.

Jess always projected a positive image of the country in all the other places he was accredited to as our ambassador following his appointment in this capacity to the US. A well-educated man (he post-graduated from Delhi way back in 1957), he got himself tutored in the high art of diplomacy at the Universities of Canberra, Oxford and George Washington. His excellent command over language (he spoke English with an Oxford accent and doubled it with fluent French when the occasion called for it) and amiable disposition, coupled with ambassadorial astuteness, notwithstanding our pestering politicians on visit to the US capital wanting him to take care of them personally, opened doors to Mauritius that would have otherwise remained closed.

A style of comportment so full of charm and simplicity endeared him to his interlocutor, howsoever high was the latter’s office or howsoever humble was his background. It is this uncontrived art he employed to project up small Mauritius from its unbeknownst isolation into the sight of the powerful of this world, but not without getting to tangible outcomes for the country.

Where did his inherent strength come from? It may have something to do with his ceaseless striving from humble origins in St Hubert near Mahébourg village. This parcours would have shown him that you don’t lose anything such as ‘status’ – whatever it means – by being nice to neighbours and fighting on till the higher goal is reached.

His passing away on Thursday 14th July brought a successful life to an end. Not really though, because the unaggressive character with which he related to the family while he also successfully clinched deals for the country, lingers on with love and affection in the memory of all, from his wife and children to colleagues in Mauritius’ External Affairs. The interest of Mauritius was still uppermost in his mind after his retirement from the job. Like achievers of his generation who had to struggle against all the odds, he will be remembered for his simplicity but also for his tenacity to fight it out until concrete results are obtained without ruffling up good relations with anyone.

* Published in print edition on 22 July 2016

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