Posts Tagged ‘Modi’

India: Google engineer latest victim of mob lynchings fueled by WhatsApp rumors

July 15, 2018

At least 25 people have been killed since May in incidents of mob violence triggered by rumors circulated on WhatsApp. The authorities are clueless as to who is behind the hoax messages.

A protester holds a placard during a demonstration against the mob lynchings in the India

A 32-year-old Google engineer was beaten to death and three others were severely injured in the southern Indian state of Karnataka on Friday in the latest incident of mob violence fueled by fake social media messages.

The victims were assaulted after one of them reportedly offered imported chocolates to school children, according to local media reports. The assailants assumed the group were trying to kidnap the children — the attack bore terrifying similarity to a string of mob lynchings in recent weeks.

Police arrested 25 people on Sunday.

Since May, at least 25 people have become victims of vigilante justice triggered by fake warnings of kidnappers or organ harvesters circulated on the Facebook-owned messaging platform WhatsApp.

The perpetrators in most cases are villagers, many of them first time smartphone users unable to discern between real and fake videos sent via the platform.

Technology-driven menace

An explosion in smartphone use is widely regarded as a major cause of the problem.

Nearly one in three Indians own a smartphone. Last year, 134 million smartphones were sold in India, which is the world’s second-biggest market, after China.

The smartphone revolution has changed the way people access information. Political parties, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, are increasingly harnessing the new medium to garner support — in many cases through incendiary content.

Read moreIndia’s Dalits outraged at increase in caste-motivated attacks

Earlier this month, a mob killed five men in the western state of Maharashtra after videos circulated on WhatsApp warning about the presence of organ harvesters. The videos were fake, with one showing children who died from a nerve-gas attack in Syria.

On July 6, the army had to be called in the eastern state of Assam to rescue three priests who were under attack from a mob, incensed by hoax messages about child kidnappers carried on WhatsApp.

In June, two young men were lynched in the state on similar suspicions.

Alarmed by the string of lynchings, the Electronics and Information Technology Ministry has called on WhatsApp to remain “accountable, responsible and vigilant” and act immediately to curb the spread of false information.

“WhatsApp needs to recognize India offers a huge market for them. They are making good money out of India operations,” Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said earlier this month. “Therefore, they must focus on the security-related aspects of people of India.”

Read moreAttacks on Africans expose India’s racist inclinations

An Indian newspaper vendor reading a newspaper with a full back page advertisement from WhatsApp intended to counter fake informationWhatsApp published full-page advertisements in leading Indian newspapers

WhatsApp media blitz

Earlier this week, WhatsApp, which counts India as its biggest market, with more than 200 million users, published full-page advertisements in leading newspapers offering tips to users on how to identify false information.

“We are starting an education campaign in India on how to spot fake news and rumors,” a WhatsApp spokesman said in a statement. “Our first step is placing newspaper advertisements in English and Hindi and several other languages. We will build on these efforts.”

WhatsApp also launched a new feature that will label forwarded messages as such, informing receivers that the sender is not the creator of the message.

“It’s a good beginning,” Altaf Halde, cybersecurity global business head at the cybersecurity consulting firm Network Intelligence, told DW. “We need a mix of technology and people awareness to deal with the problem. More education is needed, but it will not happen overnight.”

Unlike its parent company, Facebook, messages on WhatsApp are difficult to monitor, as they are encrypted. This makes it hard for law enforcement agencies to trace the creators of the false content.

Tagging forwarded messages with the originating number is not an option, experts warn.

“That’s going to pose serious privacy-related questions,” Saket Modi, the chief executive of online cyber security firm Lucideus, told DW. “I don’t want my number to be flashed every time my message is forwarded.”

Saket Modi also feels awareness is key as the majority of WhatsApp users in the country are first-time smartphone users.


‘Fake news often goes viral’: WhatsApp ads warn India after mob lynchings

South Korea’s Moon urges North, United States to move forward on ending nuclear program

July 13, 2018

South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday urged North Korea and the United States to move forward on a pact to end Pyongyang’s nuclear program, as a lack of firm steps by the North raised questions about its commitment to its pledge.

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South Korean President Moon Jae-in at a joint press conference with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (not pictured) after holding summit talks at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, on July 10, 2018.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

“If Chairman Kim (Jong Un) keeps the promise of denuclearization, he will be able to lead his country into prosperity,” Moon said in a speech during a visit to Singapore.

“This path is never easy, but if the agreements at the summit are implemented with sincerity, the goal can be achieved,” he added, referring to Kim’s historic meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in the city state a month ago.

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South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in reviews a Singapore Guard of Honor, July 12, 2018.

“If North Korea gives more substance on the implementation of denuclearization, and if South Korea and the United States quickly take comprehensive corresponding measures, the whole process will accelerate.”

At the summit, the two leaders pledged to work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and ease tension between their countries, still technically at war, since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

Since the June 12 meeting, however, Pyongyang has yet to show any sign of concrete action to dismantle its nuclear program that has brought a series of U.N. and international sanctions against the impoverished state.

But Trump on Thursday hailed “great progress” after disclosing a July 6 note from Kim in which the North’s leader said their efforts could open up a “new future” for the two countries.

Moon said he believed Trump and Kim would eventually make good on the promise made before the international community.

“If the leaders do not honor the promise they themselves made with the international community watching, they will be subject to grave judgment,” he said.

South Korea is willing to build an economic community with its neighbor once the effort to root out Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions is completed, Moon said.

Reporting by Jack Kim; Writing by Aradhana Aravindan; Editing by Clarence Fernandez


See also:

Singapore can help with efforts to denuclearise Korea: South Korean President Moon Jae-in

The Struggle for the Indo-Pacific

July 9, 2018

The approach into Nepal’s Tribhuvan International Airport requires carefully navigating the encompassing mountains, some rising nearly 10,000 feet. At altitude, Kathmandu’s magnificent pagodas, stupas and palaces are lost amidst a maze of haphazard multicolored tenements, the flowering cover of the developing world. Mount Everest, named for the former surveyor general of India, hovers, white in the near distance. As always, China is over the horizon – and in the market.

Upon landing, a large sign advertising the “Made in China” mall greets airport arrivals. Beijing’s Belts and Roads Initiative (BRI) will likely ensure a greater selection of Chinese goods for Nepal’s shoppers. Yet the material concerns of Kathmandu must be weighed against Nepali cultural and spiritual traditions, which are firmly grounded in the soil of the Indian subcontinent. Perhaps nowhere is this dynamic best witnessed than along the banks of the sacred Bagmati River at Pashupatinath Temple, where teenagers gather at dusk, talking on Chinese smartphones, as Hindu and Buddhist holy men perform final rites for the faithful before their ashes join the eternal waters, flowing downward to the Ganges.

It is unclear whether current U.S. foreign policy can properly navigate this complex region. Following the Trump administration’s rollout of its “Indo-Pacific” strategy, we have yet to witness much “Indo” in the president’s statecraft. This despite the fact that India is the largest prize – the greatest swing state – in the new Great Game, the struggle for mastery of Asia. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared to provide an opening for increased diplomatic cooperation at the Shangri-La Dialogue. This despite new tensions in U.S.-India relations. With the unexpected cancelation of a high-level summit in Delhi, U.S. President Donald Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy sits in limbo.

Source: Roncevert Almond

Piercing the Himalayas

The Himalayan walls surrounding Kathmandu have formed a barrier to the outside world; in turn, Nepal – where the Indian subcontinent and greater Asia collide – has traditionally played the role of buffer state in South Asia. Nepal has aspiration beyond being a client state or brick in a great power’s cordon sanitaire. Kathmandu’s role as a founding member and seat of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), South Asia’s sole regional organization, demonstrates as much. However, the realities of geography, demographics, and power dictate terms prior to aspirations. This landlocked country of 29 million is largely dependent on India’s infrastructure, economy and market for its prosperity and access to the world.

India’s patronage, however, has recently come into question. In 2015, Delhi initiated an informal blockade of Nepal following the adoption of a new constitution. India interpreted the effort as a form of political “gerrymandering” designed to isolate ethnic minorities living on the open Nepali-Indian borderland, particularly the Madeshis and the Tharu communities, thus threatening stability within India. Beijing responded to Kathmandu’s plea for help by expediting fuel supplies and opening trade routes closed after the devastating earthquake in April 2015. Nepal soon entered into a permanent arrangement for petroleum supplies from China, a transit treaty allowing Nepal access to Chinese ports, and a visa-free travel regime for Chinese tourists. Last year, when India offered to jointly measure Mount Everest, to determine whether the great mountain moved during the 2015 tremors, Nepal demurred.

Can China further capitalize on this momentum? During my recent visit to Nepal, the headlines announced a breakthrough China-Nepal rail link spanning the Himalayas. In Durbar Square, at the heart of Kathmandu, a giant banner promoted the “China Aid Restoration Project” to reconstruct Basantapur Tower, the historic nine-story structure partially-felled by the earthquake. China is now Nepal’s largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI). For the first time, in April 2017, the China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Nepal Army engaged in joint military exercises, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency training (which could be directed toward Tibetan refugees).

The breakdown in Indo-Nepali ties may be a temporary family feud, to borrow from Modi, but Chinese President Xi Jinping’s courtship is seeking to prove that honey is as thick as blood.

Nepal may take as a cautionary note the predicament of its SAARC neighbor Sri Lanka, which reportedly ceded control to China of a strategically placed maritime port, Hambantota, following its default on payments to Beijing. Notably, India attempted to assert a veto over the use of the port by the Chinese military. Sri Lanka has since taken steps to assuage these apprehensions. With Beijing seizing the port, Colombo acutely in debt, and Delhi deeply concerned, the BRI mega-project demonstrates the ongoing competition for influence in the region.

At the very least, Delhi cannot simply rely on history to determine its future in the region. Modi’s recent remarks in Singapore suggest he is taking this lesson to heart.

Modi’s Dialogue at Shangri-La

During his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Modi articulated a vision of a “free, open and inclusive” Indo-Pacific, which may be familiar to observers in Washington, but with important nuances and departures unique to India’s perspective of itself and foreign affairs.

Modi began by establishing first principles with regard to the Indo-Pacific region. He acknowledged that the foundations of the global order are under stress creating uncertainty, new claims, and competition. However, a “return to the age of great power rivalries” would be devastating and unnecessary.

Instead, Modi advocated for cooperation and connectivity: “Only a rules-based, open, balanced and stable trade environment” in the Indo-Pacific can lead to shared prosperity. This means “oceans are open, the seas are secure, countries are connected, the rule of law prevails and the region is stable, nations, small and large, prosper as sovereign countries.” Echoing Nehru at Bandung, the prime minister also argued: “[W]hen nations stand on the side of principles, not behind one power or the other, they earn the respect of the world and a voice in international affairs.”

Second, the prime minister highlighted India’s rising role within and focus on the Indo-Pacific region. In his telling, India seeks a democratic “rules-based international order” that applies “equally to all individually as well as to the global commons” regardless of relative power. In support, Modi cited India’s “Act East” policy of increased engagement through ASEAN-led institutions like the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (the “Plus” includes countries outside of ASEAN), ASEAN Regional Forum, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

This diplomacy builds upon the “common heritage” shared by India and ASEAN, human linkages through religion and culture, art and commerce, language and literature that have withstood the “ebb and flow” of geopolitics. India inspires a human story that is present throughout the region, a tangible influence I witnessed during international yoga day.

Third, the prime minister discreetly, but directly took on the challenge of confronting an increasingly aggressive Chinese foreign policy. In calling for a rules-based order that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity, consent over power, equality over size and strength, and fidelity to dialogue above force, Modi appeared to call into question China’s muscular approach to territorial disputes in the region – from the frontiers of the Himalayas to the contested waters of the Asia-Pacific. In a seeming referral to Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea, the Indian leader advocated for the freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law.

In an implicit criticism of China’s BRI program, Modi noted that infrastructure initiatives must promote trade, not strategic competition; empower nations, as opposed crippling them with debt; and respect norms of sovereignty and territorial integrity. As I noted in these pages, India has been very vocal in its opposition to the BRI’s centerpiece, the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which will transit disputed territory in Kashmir, claimed by India, but administered by Pakistan. Most recently, Delhi rejected Beijing’s offer to broker an India-Pakistan dialogue via the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and refused to offer support for CPEC at the annual SCO summit.

The prime minister also highlighted the prominent future for India in world affairs. He predicted a sustained economic growth rate of 7.5 to 8 percent per year, which will further India’s integration in the region. Fueling this growth will be India’s youth bulge – over 800 million strong – whose demands and dreams will shape the future global economy. In contrast, China is facing a looming demographic nightmare: a rapidly aging population coupled with a sustained decline in new entrants into its labor force. Despite, Modi’s express disavowal of power politics, his underlying message to China would be appreciated by strict realists like John Mearsheimer.

Fourth and finally, Modi issued a qualified endorsement of deepening U.S.-India ties. He noted that India’s “global strategic partnership” with the United has overcome past obstacles and assumed new significance in the changing world. India and the United States have grown beyond a relationship forged in crisis, as recorded by Rudra Chaudhuri. During the Obama years, for example, the United States and India launched a new era of cooperation with initiatives like the “Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region” and deepening ties in critical areas such as defense technology, cybersecurity, outer space, and trade.

At the same time, the prime minister balanced his remarks by referencing his informal summit at Sochi with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the shared desire for a “strong multi-polar world order.” Furthermore, Delhi is seeking to purchase the S-400 long-range antiaircraft missile system from Moscow, a long-time arms supplier for India, which has caused some consternation in Washington. Such action is consistent with what the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission described as India’s adherence to the principle of “strategic autonomy” in its foreign policy.

Additionally, the prime minister issued a warning against “growing protectionism” – most certainly in reference to Mr. Trump’s unilateral trade war (which I have written about extensively in these pages). Modi ruminated: “So, each nation must ask itself: Are its choices building a more united world, or forcing new divisions?” Whether anyone in the White House was listening is not clear.

An Indo-Pacific Strategy in Limbo

President Trump first articulated his Indo-Pacific strategy at the 2017 APEC Summit in Vietnam. At Da Nang, he called for a “free” and “open” region. Since then, the Trump administration has further defined the modifier “free” to include the freedom from coercion through the promotion of sovereignty, as well as achieving “freedom” of governance via anti-corruption, transparency, and fundamental rights. With regard to “open” the White House is referencing the freedom of navigation (open sea lanes and airways), along with open commercial access (open investment, viable infrastructure, and balanced trade). To emphasize this commitment, the Pentagon went through the trouble of renaming U.S. Pacific Command as “U.S. Indo-Pacific Command” or INDOPACOM, a form of foreign policy onomatopoeia.

Irrespective of word games, logically and necessarily, India must play a pivotal role in this thesis. Accordingly, the U.S. State Department pronounced that U.S. strategy is explicitly intended to promote India, a fellow democracy, as the “bookend and anchor the free and open order in the Indo-Pacific region.” Modi’s Shangri-La speech was consistent with this design.

Given the above, it is particularly confusing that the White House has not taken constructive action to firmly place “Indo” within its “Indo-Pacific” strategy. Instead, Trump has prioritized two other foreign policy goals that have served to alienate South Block and, thus, undermine Trump’s Indo-Pacific dream.

First, Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has placed India in a precarious position. India has traditionally had good relations with Iran, which serves as an import trading partner and supplier of petroleum, the Indian economy being dependent on fuel imports. Despite Delhi’s protest that it will ignore unilateral sanctions, the far reach of the American financial system coupled with the re-instigation of so-called “secondary” U.S. sanctions will most likely restrict the ability of Indian companies to engage in a broad range of business activities with Iran, including involvement in the energy sector. Even if India received a U.S. exemption or other form of dispensation following Ambassador Nikki Haley’s recent visit with South Block, Trump’s exit from the JCPOA will most certainly curtail Iranian fuel sales; global petroleum prices will rise; and the Indian economy (not to mention the global economy) will be subject to new stress.

Second, and compounding the prior issue, Trump has engaged in an escalating tariff battle with the world’s major economies, including India, China, the European Union, and NAFTA members. This is no small matter for Delhi. The U.S.-India trade relationship has grown to approximately $140 billion in 2017 (up from $116 billion in 2016). After filing a complaint with the World Trade Organization, on June 21, 2018, India retaliatedagainst the Trump administration’s tariffs on steel and aluminum by raising U.S. import duties. The Indian tariffs, valued at nearly $240 million, target a variety of American goods from motorcycles to almonds (India is the largest purchaser of U.S.-grown almonds). Besides goods and services, people-to-people exchanges are subject to renewed focus as even Indian immigrants are caught up in Trump’s ramped up border control efforts.

Last week the Trump administration abruptly cancelled the July “2+2 Summit” involving U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Reports suggests that Trump’s upcoming meeting with Putin took precedent, but surely a superpower must be expected to handle concurrent missions. Was the friction of the trade war too hot? Regardless, the absence of Washington in South Asia is deafening.

Recently a scheduled Air India flight from Delhi to San Francisco was delayed, as temperatures rose to 44.9 degrees Celsius. The heat was too much to provide lift. It seemed symbolic. In the past decade, the United States and India have done much to make up for what Strobe Talbott once called the “lost half century” of missed opportunities. In the 21st century, the world’s largest democracies have the chance to shape the future, from the borderlands of Nepal to the Indo-Pacific to the world beyond. The question is whether the two powers can ever rise up and summit together. For now, Shangri-La remains as elusive as ever.

Roncevert Ganan Almond is a Partner and Vice-President at The Wicks Group, based in Washington, D.C. He has counseled government authorities in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America on issues of international law. He served as an aide to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, but is not currently affiliated with any campaign. The views expressed here are strictly his own.

India preparing for cut in oil imports from Iran

June 28, 2018

India’s oil ministry has asked refiners to prepare for a ‘drastic reduction or zero’ imports of Iranian oil from November, two industry sources said, the first sign that New Delhi is responding to a push by the United States to cut trade ties with Iran.

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India has said it does not recognize unilateral restrictions imposed by the United States, and instead follows UN sanctions. But the industry sources said India, the biggest buyer of Iranian oil after China, will be forced to take action to protect its exposure to the U.S. financial system.

India’s oil ministry held a meeting with refiners on Thursday, urging them to scout for alternatives to Iranian oil, the sources said.

“(India) has asked refiners to be prepared for any eventuality, since the situation is still evolving. There could be drastic reduction or there could be no import at all,” said one of the sources, who has knowledge of the matter.

Indian oil minister Dharmendra Pradhan told reporters in Mumbai that the country would attend to its interests while deciding on oil imports.

“We know (that) to have a healthy energy mix, we can get oil from anywhere. The rest depends on geopolitics, and those decisions will be taken based on the situations,” he said. “We will go by our interests. When we decide anything on Iran, we will inform you.”

During the previous round of sanctions, India was one of the few countries that continued to buy Iranian oil, although it had to reduce imports as shipping, insurance and banking channels were choked due to the European and U.S. sanctions.

The source said this time the situation is different.

“You have India, China and Europe on one side, and U.S. on the other… At this moment we really don’t know what to do, but at the same time we have to prepare ourselves to face any eventuality,” said the source.

While a State Department official has said that Washington wants Iranian oil buyers to halt imports from November, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has told Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to lessen dependence on Iranian oil.

Haley, currently in Delhi, spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo early on Wednesday, before meeting Modi.

The U.S. push to curb countries’ imports of Iranian oil comes after President Donald Trump withdrew from a 2015 deal between Iran and six world powers and ordered a reimposition of sanctions on Tehran.

Some sanctions take effect after a 90-day “wind-down” period ending on Aug. 6, and the rest, notably in the petroleum sector, following a 180-day “wind-down period” ending on Nov. 4.


Under pressure from the U.S. sanctions, Reliance Industries Ltd (RELI.NS), the operator of the world’s biggest refining complex, has decided to halt imports.

Nayara Energy, an Indian company promoted by Russian oil major Rosneft (ROSN.MM), is also preparing to halt Iranian oil imports from November after a communication from the government, a second source said. The company has already started cutting its oil imports from this month.

Indian Oil Corp (IOC.NS), Mangalore Refineries and Petrochemicals Ltd (MRPL.NS) and Nayara Energy, the top three Indian buyers of Iranian oil, did not respond to Reuters’s request for comments.

  • IOC.NS

Removing Iranian oil from the global market by November as called for by the United States is impossible, an Iranian oil official told the semi-official Tasnim news agency on Wednesday.

The options to find replacements to Iranian oil have widened after OPEC agreed with Russia and other oil-producing allies last week to raise output from July by about 1 million bpd, with Saudi Arabia pledging a “measurable” supply boost but giving no specific numbers.

Saudi Arabia’s plans to pump up to 11 million barrels of oil per day (bpd) in July would mark a new record, an industry source familiar with Saudi oil production plans told Reuters on Tuesday.

The second source said there were plenty of options available in the market to replace Iranian oil. “There are companies and traders that are willing to give you a 60 day credit, crude is available in the market,” the source said.

To boost its sales to India, Iran recently offered virtually free shipping and an extended credit period of 60 days.

“We can buy Basra Heavy, Saudi or Kuwait oil to replace Iran. Finding replacement barrels is not a problem, but it has to give the best economic value,” a third source in New Delhi said.

Reporting by Nidhi Verma; additional reporting by Promit Mukherjee in MUMBAI and Alex Lawler in London; graphic by Gavin Maguire; editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Jason Neely


India: No full-time finance minster, no chief statistician, chief economic advisor is on his way out

June 26, 2018

Ahead of the 2019 general elections, prime minister Narendra Modi’s economic team is looking a little thin. Asia’s third-largest economy is currently without a full-time finance minster and a chief statistician, while its chief economic advisor is on his way out.

On Jan. 31, chief statistician TCA Anant demitted the office, and the government has been unable to find a replacement. Last week, citing personal reasons, chief economic adviser (CEA) Arvind Subramanian decided to step down four months before his tenure was to end.

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Subramanian’s abrupt exit comes at a time when Modi’s team doesn’t even have a full-time finance minister. In May, Arun Jaitley underwent a kidney transplant and is now recuperating, working out of his residence. In his absence, railway minister Piyush Goyal has been given additional charge of the finance portfolio.

“It is very unlikely that even if doctors give Jaitley a green signal to join work, he would come back to office. His job entails a lot of travelling and he’ll not be able to do so. So, till the elections at least, Goyal will remain the minister,” a senior government official told Quartz, requesting anonymity.

Although no major economic reforms are expected ahead of the polls, the finance ministry has its hands full managing inflation and resuscitating growth. Yet, Goyal is likely to hold the office. “The prime minister’s office doesn’t want this arrangement to be tampered with at the moment,” said another government official, seeking anonymity.

The finance ministry did not reply to an emailed questionnaire from Quartz.

Headless offices

None of this bodes well for a government that touts its economic track record.

“The vacancies in top economic posts as India encounters serious economic headwinds do not inspire confidence. They reprise previously expressed doubts about this government’s ‘bench strength’,” said Milan Vaishnav, director and senior fellow of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “And they come at a time when India’s fiscal position is under stress due to rising oil prices, rural distress, and pre-election pressures.”

Meanwhile, the Modi government plans to revise the base years for key economic data and publish a new labour survey, which makes the absence of a chief statistician something of a concern. However, some observers see no need to set off alarm bells just yet.

“The respective data from government departments and the methodology is already in place. The absence of a chief statistician should not be a hindrance in terms of what’s already there,” said Madan Sabnavis, chief economist at CARE Ratings. However, he added that these vacancies may be problematic if new policies have to be implemented.

Even though there may be no short-term impediments, there is a need to fill in these vacancies immediately. “People at the Central Statistics Office (CSO) are doing their work anyway. But it’s necessary that in a democracy, its institutions should be in place. And no institution can be ‘headless’,” an economist at a ratings agency said, requesting anonymity.

With India going to the polls next year, it remains unclear as to when the government intends to fill these high-profile jobs. For one, it will have to present the vote on account—a temporary budgetary exercise—early next year where the role of these officials will be crucial.

“Economic advisors serve two key functions: to provide sound, independent economic advice to the government and to demonstrate credibility to markets,” added Vaishnav. “For both reasons, the Modi government would be well-served to plug existing vacancies as soon as possible.”

India: Narendra Modi hunts for more economic ‘firepower’

June 25, 2018

Growth is strong but further reform will be needed to produce the results promised by a government hoping for re-election next year

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By Amy Kazmin in New Delhi

An entrepreneur who says business is in his blood, Ajay Gandhi, 61, does not think much of India’s political establishment. He blames it for byzantine regulations and an intrusive bureaucracy that leave private enterprises facing what he says are “hurdles unimaginable in any [other] part of the world”.

The Hyderabad-based accountant’s disillusionment is all the deeper because he thought India was on the cusp of change in May 2014, when Narendra Modi swept to power — backed by a business community fed up with the policy paralysis of the previous Congress-led administration. The premier had a reputation — built while chief minister of Gujarat — for creating a welcoming climate for private investment. His overwhelming national mandate raised hopes for a string of market-friendly reforms.

“He is identified closely with the trading and business community — they are his strongest supporters,” says Mr Gandhi, who employs around 270 people in his accountancy and software companies. “They are not from a leftist ideology . . . I thought they would understand the pain areas [for] business and address them.”

After four turbulent years Mr Gandhi feels let down. India rose 30 points last year on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business report to rank 100 out of 190 countries. Movement of goods between states has become easier and faster. Yet growth and reform plans have both fallen short of expectations and Mr Gandhi says the business climate feels little changed.

“I was proven wrong,” he says. “There are 1,000 irritants that every business faces that you can see only at the ground level. But they [Modi’s government] don’t have an ear for that, and they don’t have an eye for that. They are only looking at headlines.”

Debate over Mr Modi’s economic record promises to intensify as the prime minister — who rode to power on promises of more jobs and opportunity — bids for a second term in national elections now less than 12 months away. Not long ago, the charismatic leader looked set to romp to an easy victory against a weak and fragmented opposition. But with opponents banding together to try to halt Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, India now appears headed for a fiercely competitive electoral contest.

What remains unclear is whether his economic record will help or hinder his prospects. India is recovering from the twin shocks of his draconian cash ban and a difficult transition to a new tax system. Now just as it is regaining some lost momentum, the economy is facing a fresh threat from global turbulence.

“It’s going to be a very, very difficult and challenging election,” says Vivek Dehejia, a senior fellow at Mumbai’s IDFC Institute, a think-tank. “[Mr] Modi himself set very high expectations. Voters are going to ask themselves ‘has he delivered?’ on those promises.”

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In the past four years, Narendra Modi’s administration has invested in infrastructure and social welfare schemes © AFP

The question might seem odd to outsiders. India is the fastest-growing large economy in the world with gross domestic product rising 7.7 per cent in the first quarter of 2018, something the BJP government touts as evidence of its success.

In the past four years, the administration has pushed through a new bankruptcy law, overhauled the previously convoluted tax regime and strengthened its monetary-policy framework. It has invested in roads and railways and tried to make social welfare schemes more efficient. Government supporters say these efforts have put India on course for stable, accelerated growth.

“We undertook the structural reforms that have set the stage for sustained high growth in the future so that we can grow for decades without boom-bust cycles,” says Jayant Sinha, the former deputy finance minister, who led the now abandoned effort to privatise state carrier Air India . “There is no other government in the last four years anywhere that has attempted a reform agenda that is as sweeping, [or] impactful, as India’s.”

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But many Indians, including Mr Sinha’s father, an 80-year-old BJP veteran, see the past four years as a wasted opportunity, when Mr Modi could have done far more to unshackle the country’s economic potential.

Just two years ago, Arvind Subramanian, the chief economic adviser until last week, bullishly forecast that India was poised for GDP growth of between 8 and 10 per cent. That is the range, most economists agree, needed to generate sufficient jobs for its youthful population, and for it to reach upper-middle income status in the coming decades.

But instead of reforming India’s highly regulated labour and land markets — or privatising inefficient state enterprises, time and energy was diverted to Mr Modi’s fanciful cash ban, when 86 per cent of banknotes were abruptly cancelled in a drive to eradicate black money. Critics argue the administration was also slow to get to grips with the severity of India’s bad debt crisis, a major drag on growth.

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Arvind Subramanian, former chief economic adviser, bullishly forecast that India was poised for GDP growth of between 8 and 10 per cent © AFP

Now, the IMF and Moody’s, the rating agency, are both forecasting that India will grow between 7 per cent and 8 per cent this year and next. That is healthy by global standards but far short of the double-digit growth needed over the coming years for New Delhi to lift its per capita income — just $1,709 last year according to the World Bank — closer to China’s $8,123.

“This government — judging by the promises that it made to the people of bringing good days for everyone — has not delivered,” says Yashwant Sinha, Jayant’s father, who was finance minister in a previous BJP government, but who quit the ruling party in April.

“We let 2014 go by. We let 2015 go by. In 2016, we came with the hammer blow of demonetisation and the hammer of a botched goods-and-services tax. Now we are looking at the tepid growth rate of a little over 7 per cent.”

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TN Ninan, chairman of the Business Standard newspaper, credits Mr Modi with injecting dynamism into an inert governmental apparatus. But he says the efforts have not improved economic competitiveness: India’s labour-intensive exports have been flat for three years, despite factory wage levels that are half those in China. “At this level of per capita income, growing 7 per cent is not a super-impressive thing,” he says. “If you were doing something well, you should be growing at 9 or 10 per cent.”

Now a more volatile global economic climate with rising oil prices, threats of trade wars and financial market instability has exposed India’s macroeconomic vulnerabilities, particularly its fragile public finances and widening current account deficit. Since 2014, the combined fiscal deficit of India’s central and state governments has remained above 6 per cent, as efforts at fiscal consolidation were countered by expansionary spending at the state level.

According to HSBC, even India’s strong first-quarter growth was “lifted by the hand of government”, with a surge in public spending compensating for muted private investment. “There has been a massive amount of government spending underlying this economy,” says Jahangir Aziz, head of emerging markets research at JPMorgan. “But the fiscal deficit is widening and there is no spare firepower within fiscal or monetary policy to shield the economy.”

Reflecting the new skittishness, foreign portfolio investors withdrew $6.7bn from India’s markets between April 1 and June 4, part of a growing shift away from emerging markets back towards the US. Bond yields have risen from 6.2 per cent in November 2016 to 7.8 per cent last week. “Things have become much more volatile and uncertain,” Mr Aziz says.

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Adi Godrej, chairman of the eponymous consumer goods group: ‘In India, if you do too much, you destabilise things’ © AFP

Mr Modi came to power with the first single-party majority of any Indian government in 30 years. Given this strong mandate and his freedom from coalition partners, many hoped for bold measures. “He could have done anything he wanted, no one was asking him a question,” Mr Gandhi says.

But the premier had little appetite for reforms that could erode his popularity. An initial attempt to revise India’s controversial 2013 land acquisition law, which businesses complain makes it too expensive to obtain land for industry, was abandoned after an outcry from farmers.

Afterwards, hopes faded for an overhaul of labour laws that make it nearly impossible for large companies to lay off or fire employees — rules that economists say have deterred job creation and large-scale manufacturing. Privatisation has made little progress.

Instead, the administration focused on selling India as an appealing destination for manufacturing investment, with its “ Make in India ” campaign and a drive to improve the country’s ranking in the ease of doing business index. “They retreated into trying to be good managers and pushing technocratic, non-controversial reforms that wouldn’t cause political blowback,” the IDFC’s Mr Dehejia says.

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India attracted $40bn in FDI in 2017 according to the UN, but as a percentage of GDP that is still lower than at its peak a decade ago, while job growth is sluggish. Meanwhile piles of bad debt in state banks were allowed to fester. It took two years for the administration to push through the bankruptcy law, then another year for the Reserve Bank of India to order 12 large defaulters — accounting for 25 per cent of all bad debt — into court.

Bad loans are now believed to have peaked, but the clean-up will take years. Eleven distressed state banks have had curbs placed on their lending while Moody’s has warned a $32bn recapitalisation plan announced last year is “insufficient to support credit growth”.

“The government took three years to verify whether the bad debts were truly a problem or whether it was just being amplified by analysts and rating agencies,” says Mr Aziz. “They are doing the right thing now, but they are doing [it]much later than they should have.”

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The boldest move of the Modi tenure so far is also perhaps its oddest: the November 2016 cash ban. With the vast informal economy severely disrupted, jobs lost and growth hit, Indians still debate whether the benefits outweighed the painful costs.

Industrialist Adi Godrej, however, is in no doubt: it was a poor economic choice, coming just ahead of an important but disruptive reform intended to force more businesses to pay tax.

“In India, there are a lot of suggestions on reform, but there’s a hazard that if you do too much, you destabilise things,” says Mr Godrej, chairman of the eponymous consumer goods group. “Although there was a large black economy, demonetisation could have been avoided. The GST reform was going to do most of the things that demonetisation was supposed to do.”

India in numbers

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Increase in GDP in Q1 2018, lower than one former adviser’s forecast

In FDI attracted by India in 2017, as a percentage of GDP less than in 2007

India’s per capita income last year, well short of China’s at $8,123

Political calculations still influence economic decisions. Ahead of last year’s Gujarat state elections, Mr Modi yielded to complaints from small businesses that the new GST was too onerous for them to comply with, and rolled back many requirements for companies with revenues of less than $300,000.

Saurabh Mukherjea, chief executive of Ambit Capital, estimates that with those moves, New Delhi essentially gave small businesses a tax cut equivalent to around 1 per cent of GDP, a giveaway that it could ill-afford. “Under duress, they are giving up all the gains of modernisation and reforms,” he says.

But Rajiv Kumar, vice-chairman of government think-tank NITI Aayog, insists Mr Modi’s actions will pay off.

“Having done demonetisation and GST, we have made it much tougher for ourselves to get the investment cycle back up,” he says. “But the whole host of structural reforms we have done are going to be game-changers. They will produce higher growth going forward. By 2022, we should be at 9 per cent [GDP growth] and above.”


Price swings: Oil offers slicker indicator of economic strength

In assessing Narendra Modi’s record, both supporters and detractors tend to correlate the ups and downs of India’s growth with the prime minister’s actions. But economists say this overlooks a more critical factor: the impact of global oil price swings on India’s economy.

When Mr Modi took office in May 2014, India, which imports 80 per cent of its fuel, was paying $108 a barrel for crude. But in the following six months, prices halved, ending 2014 at $57 a barrel. The sharp drop, which continued through 2015, alleviated the pressure on New Delhi’s public finances, eased inflationary stress and flattered India’s gross domestic product, improvements for which Mr Modi happily took credit.

“Tell me, hasn’t the petrol price come down? Are you not saving money,” he asked supporters in February 2015. “People say that all this has happened because Narendra Modi is lucky. If my luck can benefit the country, why do you need to elect an unlucky government?”

In 2016, New Delhi began levying new excise duties on petrol and diesel. Some of these revenues funded infrastructure investment, while the rest bolstered fragile public finances. But when oil prices began climbing again in 2016, India’s GDP growth softened, even as the global economy gained momentum.

India’s vulnerability was highlighted in May, when oil prices briefly touched $80 a barrel. It prompted a clamour for New Delhi to cut excise duties, which account for 17 per cent of its total revenues.

“India’s economy has been driven almost entirely by luck,” says Jahangir Aziz, head of emerging markets economics at JPMorgan. “When oil prices came down, the economy looked great. When oil prices started to go back up, it took its toll.”

PM Modi Talks “Team India” Amid Attack From Chief Ministers — Constitutional crisis?

June 17, 2018

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s sit-in protest at Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal’s threatens to overshadow today’s NITI Aayog meeting

PM Modi Talks 'Team India' Amid Attack From Chief Ministers: 10 Points

NITI Aayog meet: Mamata Banerjee, Chandrababu Naidu and HD Kumaraswamy meet PM Narendra Modi

NEW DELHI:  At a key meeting of government think-tank Niti Aayog today, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invoked “Team India” and said “the Governing Council has approached complex issues of governance… in the spirit of cooperative, competitive federalism”. The comment comes in the backdrop of four Chief Ministers extending support to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal who has been on a sit-in protest at the house of Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal for almost a week. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Andhra Pradesh’s N Chandrababu Naidu, Kerala’s Pinarayi Vijayan and Karnataka’s HD Kumaraswamy had earlier said that they would meet PM Modi to seek resolution for what they have called a “constitutional crisis”.

In his opening address at the NITI Aayog meet, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Chief Ministers of states have played a key role in policy formulation, through sub-groups and committees on issues such as Swachh Bharat Mission, Digital Transactions, and Skill Development.
The day-long fourth meeting of the Governing Council of NITI Aayog is being attended by chief ministers, union ministers and top bureaucrats. It is meant to discuss crucial policy matters and the centre’s flagship schemes.
The four chief ministers, who were denied permission to meet Mr Kejriwal on Saturday, have accused the centre of stoking the crisis and “destroying” the federal structure.”If this is happening in the capital, then what will happen in other states?” Mamata Banerjee said on Saturday.
Mr Kejriwal has skipped today’s meeting. He and his three ministers have been camping out at the waiting room in Lt Governor’s house, demanding an end to a “strike” called by bureaucrats in response to an alleged assault on Delhi Chief Secretary Anshu Prakash in February.
Thanking the four Chief Ministers for their support, Mr Kejriwal – who told NDTV that the officers’ protest was at the “instance of the Prime Minister” – on Saturday said, “We all will work together to save democracy”.

Hitting out at the four chief ministers, senior BJP leader Vijay Goel on Saturday said that the leaders were in the national capital to attend the NITI Aayog meeting and not to do politics. “It doesn’t suit them,” he said.

The sit-in by Arvind Kejriwal has become the latest rallying point for opposition parties which, enthused by the recent successes in by-elections in many states, are relishing the idea of a united front against the BJP ahead of 2019.
Today’s meeting is also expected to see Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu raise the issue of the centre’s refusal to grant ‘special category status’ to his state. This will be the first time Mr Naidu will come face-to-face with the Prime Minister after his Telugu Desam Party (TDP) pulled out of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in March over the special status issue.
Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy, whose swearing-in ceremony last month had turned into a show of opposition unity, said that he has sought an appointment with the Prime Minister today to discuss the recently formed Cauvery Water Management Authority (CMA).
At today’s meeting, the issues to be discussed include measures taken to double farmers’ income and the progress in flagship schemes. The development agenda for ‘New India 2022’ is also expected to be approved in the meeting, according to an official statement.

India’s Economy Beats China

June 15, 2018

(Photo by Mikhail MetzelTASS via Getty Images)

Modi’s Indian economy expanded at an annual rate of 7.7% in the first quarter of 2018, compared to 5.6% a year ago, as manufacturing and investments picked up steam. Meanwhile, China’s economy expanded at an annual rate of 6.8% over the first quarter of 2018, the same as a year earlier — see Table 1

By  Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.

Table 1

Economy Expansion Rate

Month India China
July 2017 5.6% 6.8%
January 2018 7.0 6.8
May 2018 7.7 6.8

Source: 6/12/18

What’s behind this metric? The growth stages the two economies are in.

India’s economy is still in an early growth stage, where there’s still plenty of excess resources. Therefore, it can grow by better utilizing these resources with conventional technologies. China’s economy, by contrast, is in an advanced growth stage, operating close to full capacity. Therefore, it can no longer grow by using conventional technologies. It must innovate, and that isn’t easy given China’s current economic structure where most of its economic sectors are controlled by the government.

That could explain why India’s economy is beating China in another metric: competitiveness. In the last four years, India gained 20 points in the World Economic Forum’s (WEFR) Global Competitiveness rankings, while China’s ranking remained roughly unchanged — see Table 2.


Table 2

Competitiveness Rankings For Selected Years

Year India China
2010 49 29
2012 56 26
2014 60 29
2016 55 28
2018 40 27

Source:; World Economic Forum

Rising competitiveness hasn’t been sufficient to help India close its current Account gap. For the fiscal year 2016-17, India’s current Account deficit remained 0.70% of GDP. Meanwhile, China recorded a current Account surplus of 1.30% of GDP.

This means that Indians continue to live beyond their means, while Chinese live below their means.

This is situation that could spell trouble for India’s currency and financial markets, as U.S. interest rates are rising and foreign capital flows back from emerging markets to the U,S.

Financial markets have taken noticed, with dollar denominated Indian ETFs underperforming Chinese ETFs—see Table 3.

Table 3

Dollar Denominated ETF Performance

Index/Fund 12-month Performance 2-year Performance
IShares China (FXI) 19.57% 46.12%
iShares S&P India 50 (INDY) 4.72 17.91%

Source: /6/12/2018

How Beijing is winning control of the South China Sea

June 13, 2018

Erratic US policy and fraying alliances give China a free hand

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Chinese warships and fighter jets take part in a military display in the South China Sea on April 12.   © Reuters

Even by his outspoken standards, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s account of a conversation he had with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, was startling.

During a meeting between the two leaders in Beijing in May 2017, the subject turned to whether the Philippines would seek to drill for oil in a part of the South China Sea claimed by both countries. Duterte said he was given a blunt warning by China’s president.

“[Xi’s] response to me [was], ‘We’re friends, we don’t want to quarrel with you, we want to maintain the presence of warm relationship, but if you force the issue, we’ll go to war,” Duterte recounted.

A year later, Duterte was asked for a response to news that China had landed long-range bombers on one of the South China Sea’s Paracel Islands — a milestone that suggests the People’s Liberation Army Air Force can easily make the short hop to most of Southeast Asia from its new airstrips. “What’s the point of questioning whether the planes there land or not?” Duterte responded.

His refusal to condemn China’s military buildup underlines China’s success in subduing its rivals in the South China Sea. Since 2013 China has expanded artificial islands and reefs in the sea and subsequently installed a network of runways, missile launchers, barracks and communications facilities.

These military advances have led many to wonder if Beijing has already established unassailable control over the disputed waters. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have overlapping claims to parts of the South China Sea and its islands – claims that are looking increasingly forlorn in the wake of China’s military buildup.

“What China is winning is de facto control of nearly the entire South China Sea, including all activities and resources in it, despite the other surrounding Southeast Asian states’ respective legal rights and entitlements under international law,” said Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

At stake is the huge commercial and military leverage that comes with controlling one of the world’s most important shipping lanes, through which up to $5 trillion worth of trade passes each year.

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis insists that China faces “consequences” for the “militarization” of South China Sea, which he says is being done for “the purposes of intimidation and coercion.”

“There are consequences that will continue to come home to roost, so to speak, with China, if they do not find the way to work more collaboratively with all of the nations,” Mattis said on June 2 at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, a security conference organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Mac Thornberry, chairman of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, added that the U.S. naval presence means China does not have a free hand in the South China Sea.

“I think you will see more and more nations working together to affirm freedom of navigation through the South China Sea and other international waters,” Thornberry told the Nikkei Asian Review.

But what those consequences might be was left unsaid by Mattis, who suggested that there was little prospect of forcing China to give up its growing network of military facilities dotting the sea.

“We all know nobody is ready to invade,” he said.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis talked up the “Indo-Pacific” strategy in his June 2 speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “There is no reasonable basis for the U.S. to use military force to push China off its outposts, nor would any country in the region support such an effort.”

The U.S. pushback so far has included disinviting China from a major Pacific naval exercise. It also continues to carry out so-called freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPs, the most recent of which took place on May 27. This was followed by U.S. military aircraft flying over the Paracel Islands in early June, a move that prompted a countercharge of “militarization’” against the U.S. by China’s Foreign Ministry.

China regards the FONOPs as sabre-rattling and “a challenge to [our] sovereignty,” according to Lt. Gen. He Lei, Beijing’s lead representative at the Singapore conference.

He restated the government position on troops and weapons on islands in the South China Sea, describing the deployments as an assertion of sovereignty and said that allegations of militarization were “hyped up” by the U.S.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana stopped short of endorsing the FONOPs but told the Nikkei Asian Review that “it is our belief that those sea lanes should be left open and free.”

In contrast to Duterte’s reluctance to confront China, his predecessor as president, Benigno Aquino, was frequently outspoken about China’s increasing control of the sea. He pressed a case against Beijing to an arbitration tribunal in 2013 after a protracted naval stand-off the year before around Scarborough Shoal, a rock claimed by both countries and lying about 120 nautical miles off the Luzon coast.

In mid-2016 the tribunal dismissed China’s expansive “nine-dash line” claim to much of the South China Sea and its artificial island-building and expansion, all of which the tribunal said contravened the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS.

Duterte said he would not “flaunt” the tribunal outcome, in contrast with his campaign pledge to assert the country’s sovereignty — he even vowed to ride a jet ski to one of China’s artificial islands and plant the Philippine flag there. Manila hopes for significant Chinese investment in roads, rail and ports, as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, a multicontinent plan outlining China-backed infrastructure upgrades.

Filipino activists rally outside the Chinese Consulate in Manila in February to protest Beijing’s continued reclamation activities in the South China Sea.   © Reuters

Defense Secretary Lorenzana emphasized in remarks to the media in Singapore that good relations with China remain a priority, regardless of bilateral disputes. “It is just natural for us to befriend our neighbor. We cannot avoid dealing with China, they are near, [and] many Filipinos, including me, have Chinese blood.”

For the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, there are growing doubts about whether the American navy would protect them in a conflict with China, something Duterte, a brusque critic of the U.S., has questioned publicly.

Mattis, like former President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, sidestepped a question on that issue in Singapore, saying, “The reason why public figures do not want to give specific answers is that these are complex issues.”

American evasiveness is a reminder to the Philippines that the U.S. might not risk war with China over its old ally. “It is debatable whether Filipinos believe that the U.S. will have its back in a conflict with China,” Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines said. “Duterte’s repeated statements against the reliability of the U.S. as an ally tends to undermine this further.”

Duterte’s reticence has left Vietnam as the sole claimant willing to speak up. Discussing recent developments in the South China Sea, Vietnamese Defense Minister Gen. Ngo Xuan Lich told the Singapore conference, “Under no circumstances could we excuse militarization by deploying weapons and military hardware over disputed areas against regional commitments.”

Lich did not name-check China in his speech, but described “a serious breach to the sovereignty” of another country that “violates international laws, complicates the situation and negatively affects regional peace, stability and security.”

As well as hindering oil and gas projects in waters close to Vietnam, China’s navy has for several years harassed Vietnamese fishing boats — as it does around the Philippines — and continues to occupy islands seized from Vietnam nearly five decades ago.

In 2014, anti-China riots kicked off across Vietnam after China placed an oil rig in South China Sea waters claimed by Hanoi. In early June there were demonstrations against proposals that protesters claimed will give Chinese businesses favored access in so-called Special Economic Zones in Vietnam.

The Lan Tay gas platform, operated by Rosneft Vietnam, sits in the South China Sea off the Vietnamese coast. China has been hindering Vietnam’s oil exploration activities in the sea.   © Reuters

Vietnam’s response to potential isolation has been a cautious dalliance with the U.S. In late 2016, shortly before the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, American warships docked in Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay naval base, the first such visit since the former antagonists normalized ties in 1995. That landmark was followed in March this year by the arrival of a U.S. aircraft carrier to the central Vietnam city of Danang.

Hanoi recently called for greater Japanese involvement in the region’s maritime disputes, perhaps signalling an interest in a wider effort to counter China. But unlike the Philippines, Vietnam, which like China is a single party communist-run state, is not a U.S. treaty ally. Historical and ideological differences mean that there are limits to how closely Vietnam will align with the U.S.

“I think there is a good momentum with defense cooperation with the U.S. But I don’t think that it would immediately mean jumping into the ‘American camp,’ whatever it means,” said Huong Le Thu, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

From Bollywood to Hollywood

The U.S. has sought to widen the array of countries it hopes will join it in countering China’s rising influence. During his 12-day swing through Asia in late 2017, Trump peppered his speeches with references to the “Indo-Pacific,” dispensing with the long established “Asia-Pacific” label in favor of a more expansive term first used by Japan.

The “Indo-Pacific” was then mentioned throughout the U.S. National Security Strategy published soon after Trump’s Asia trip — a document that alleged China aims to “challenge American power” and “is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda.”

Three days before his Singapore speech, Mattis announced in Hawaii that the U.S. Pacific Command would be renamed the Indo-Pacific Command, describing the expanded theater as stretching “from Bollywood to Hollywood.”

Mattis later added some gravitas to the cinematic catchphrase, saying in Singapore that “standing shoulder to shoulder with India, ASEAN and our treaty allies and other partners, America seeks to build an Indo-Pacific where sovereignty and territorial integrity are safeguarded — the promise of freedom fulfilled and prosperity prevails for all.”

The Trump administration clearly hopes for greater Indian involvement in its efforts to counter China’s growing influence. Kori Schake, deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that while “Indo-Pacific isn’t yet an established part of the lexicon,” the implications of the term are clear.

“India is an Asian power. The countries adopting the term are encouraging India into greater cooperation in maintaining the maritime commons in the Indian and Pacific oceans,” said Schake, a former U.S. State Department official.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security conference, in Singapore on June 1. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

Modi enthusiastically echoed American rhetoric about a “shared vision of an open, stable, secure and prosperous” Indo-Pacific, which he described as “a natural region” — countering those who wonder if an area stretching from Bollywood to Hollywood might too vast and disparate to be cast into a geopolitical fact on the ground.

But Modi also heaped praise on China, despite its border dispute with India and increasingly close economic ties with Pakistan, India’s neighbor and nuclear rival.

“Our cooperation is expanding. Trade is growing. And, we have displayed maturity and wisdom in managing issues and ensuring a peaceful border,” Modi said.

China’s foreign ministry described Modi’s speech as “positive,” while one of its military delegation at the Singapore conference gloated that India and the U.S. “have different understandings, different interpretations, of this Indo-Pacific.”

China’s first domestically designed and built aircraft carrier   © Kyodo

It is perhaps no surprise then that China’s rivals in the South China Sea do not yet regard the nascent Indo-Pacific alliance-building as something to pin their hopes on when it comes to control of the sea.

“We are witnessing the great power shift toward Asia-Pacific with the ‘Indo-Pacific strategy,’ Belt and Road Initiative and a series of country grouping[s] in the region,” Lich said, cautioning that “the outcomes for the region and the world are somewhat yet to be unveiled.”

Lich’s Philippine counterpart was even more circumspect, particularly regarding the Indo-Pacific concept. “I have to study it some more,” Lorenzana said. “This is a new construct in this area.”

Nikkei staff writers Mikhail Flores in Manila and Atsushi Tomiyama in Hanoi contributed to this article.

India arrests 15 over latest ‘child abduction’ lynchings incited by social media

June 10, 2018

Vigilante mob killings sparked by fake news on social media….

Indian police have arrested 15 men after the latest in a spate of lynchings incited by rumours spread on WhatsApp of strangers abducting children, an officer said Sunday.

A mob in a mainly tribal area of the northeastern state of Assam pulled two men out of their car on Friday night and beat them to death before police could arrive.

© AFP/File | Smartphones are fuelling rumours of child abductions in India

A video on YouTube shows the badly bruised and bleeding men pleading for their lives.

The two friends, residents of Guwahati city in the state, were returning from a picnic spot.

“We have arrested 15 persons. We have also zeroed in on a couple of people who recorded and uploaded the video,” senior state police official Mukesh Agrawal told AFP.

“The villagers got suspicious of the strangers as for the last three or four days messages were going around on WhatsApp, as well as through word of mouth, about child lifters roaming the area,” the officer said.

India has seen a string of similar vigilante mob killings sparked by fake news — often looking like newspaper clippings — circulated on social media.

Last month six people were killed in separate incidents in southern India prompted by rumours about a child kidnapping gang.

And last year eight men were killed in similar attacks in Jharkhand state in the east.

Experts say false news spreads like wildfire in rural India, with vulnerable and often illiterate first-time smartphone users unable to sift real news from fake.