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The Olympics is not just about sportsmanship

It is impossible to keep politics out of sports, particularly at an event whose very foundation rests on national identity.

By Hamsini Hariharan (@HamsiniH)

Bomb scares, doping allegations, unready rooms, sexual harassment and the clinking of gold medals have turned all eyes to Rio. The 2016 Olympics is sure to be exciting but the mega event is also important because of its geopolitical undercurrents. Indeed, the Olympic Torch may represent ‘peace, unity and friendship’ but the Games have always been about more than sportsmanship. The objective is to carry out sports diplomacy, however the result is often dictated by power politics. This year, for instance, the participation of the first ever team of displaced athletes named ‘Team Refugees’ brings light to the instability of political regimes around the world and the impact it has on civilians. Not only does this indicate an erosion of nationalism but also the fragile state of peace of the post Cold War world.

The Olympics display elements of nation branding embedded in the practices and traditions. It is an opportunity for countries to display their soft power as well as attract investment and tourism. A simultaneous narrative is often one of urban development (or lack of) as countries strive to boost infrastructure and provide ‘worldclass facilities’. Ten years ago, Brazil was touted as one the strongest economies in the world and its hosting the Olympics was to indicate its standing among middle powers. The choice of Brazil as a host city somehow became representative of the North-South debate as, it is the first South American host and the sole in the southern hemisphere.

However, the Rio Olympics seem to have had the opposite impression. The awaited impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, the huge corruption scandal and the terrible recession instead showcase the simmering political discord within the country.  The construction of Olympic specific infrastructure is also problematic because it highlights issues of national importance. Generally, there is a trend of the hosts using the mega event to ramp up the infrastructure in cities. On the other hand, this has also exposed the various pitfalls within the cities themselves. Questions about the preparedness of Rio, has also brought the spotlight to the various problems in Brazil, from the amount of air pollution and the political instability, to high unemployment rates, the crime rates in the city to the pandemic Zika virus.

The criticism levied against Rio is not unique; the Olympics is beset by criticism and political signaling. A set of protestors outside the mega-event has become a regular feature. The 2012 Winter Olympics at Sochi saw massive demonstrations by LGBT activists as well as Georgian protestors. The suppression of Tibetans gained widespread coverage during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Poverty whether it is in Rio, Athens, Beijing or London is a common narrative for host countries. This year, it has gained even more prominence with the popularity of favela tours that are supposed to boost cultural understanding and tourism revenues but have been criticised as voyeuristic slum tourism.

Through political history, the Olympics were reflective of the power politics of the time and were characterised by patterns of political gesturing. The Games were cancelled thrice because of the two World Wars. During the Cold War, antagonism between the two bipolar states was remarkable in the Olympic Games as the raking of medals was a metaphor for the prowess of a superpower. The Olympics have often been sites for geopolitics to be played out as countries boycotted the games to display political displeasure. Of course, the most remarkable event in the history of the Olympics were the 1972 Munich Olympic Games in which 11 Israeli athletes killed by Palestinian extremists.

The messy history of the Olympic Games has translated into a devoted fan following for various sports, with technology allowing for live broadcast and constant reminders. It is an important nation building activity, turning a politically indifferent aam aadmi into a patriotic tally keeper. It is impossible to keep politics out of sports, particularly at an event whose very foundation rests on national identity. What ensues however, is a extravagant display of games and geopolitics, which sometimes intertwine.

Hamsini Hariharan is a Research Scholar with the Takshashila Institution and tweets at @HamsiniH

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Leaves from South East Asian Books: Dealing with Radicalisation

ISIS is increasingly focusing on South East Asia where large populations of moderate Muslims reside, while governments are intensifying efforts towards deradicalisation and counter terrorism.

By Hamsini Hariharan (@HamsiniH)

In the last week of Ramzan, terrorist attacks have taken place in Turkey, Bangladesh, Iraq, Yemen, Malaysia, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. While some of these incidents remain claimed by different terrorist groups, the influence of the ISIS tactics have been pervasive. In South-East Asia, where large Muslim populations reside have not been immune to the spread of ISIS ideology. The semi-state has already established presence in Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia. At the beginning of Ramzan, Furat Media (which is affiliated with the IS) released its first Malay newsletter Al-Fatihin, aimed at Malay speakers across South-East Asia.

This was the IS ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy where the group decided to turn to countries eat of West Asia where huge Muslim populations reside. It first began in 2014 when the Katibah Nusantara, a military wing consisting Malay and Indonesian speaking fighters was formed. Since then, several local groups have pledged allegiance to the group. A Pew Study showed that 11% of Malaysians and 4% of Indonesians displayed favourable view of ISIS.

Countries in South East Asia have been taking proactive counter terrorism efforts. The region is not new to fighting terrorism as radical groups (both local and with links to groups in West Asia) have a long history in the region. However, the governments have responded with swift crackdowns and long interrogations against potential perpetrators. In 2015, over 100 people were arrested and seven plots were foiled in Malaysia while in Indonesia, approximately 74 people were arrested and nine plots detected in time to prevent them. Singapore also followed suit with stringent security measures enforced all over the island.  The three countries are focusing on re-vamping their legal framework to boost counter terrorism efforts.

The ISIS has garnered limited support in South East Asia because of the effective deradicalisation programmes carried out by governments and awareness programs to sensitise moderate Muslims. Indonesia in 2013 published a National Deradicalisation Blueprint to intervene and persuade people away from radical narrative. While it does face issues with recidivism, it has focused on prisons as a site for radicalisation since the early 2000s. Malaysia’s deradicalisation programmes date back to the 1960s, though it was initially aimed at reintegrating communist insurgents and reducing marginalisation. In October 2015, the Malysian Deputy Prime Minister claimed that the deradicalisation programme had a 97 per cent success rate and was recognised by the United Nations and Interpol.While this certainly is a tall claim, Malaysia’s deradicalisation has largely proved that it has faced even fewer extremist related attacks than Indonesia.

ISIS territory may be wrested from their control however, it will not be the end of the group, the ideology or the tactics. The ISIS also works on the principle of radical networking and even if they do manage to establish a caliphate, it is possible that their supporters all over the world continue with their agenda. While countries in South East Asia grapple with diverse religious challenges (from growing extremism of various religions, communal clashes to persecution of minorities), they have still proved adept at dealing with religious terrorism. Examples from Malaysia and Indonesia can prove helpful at tackling the threats in other countries with large moderate populations with the potential to be radicalised.

Hamsini Hariharan is a Research Scholar with the Takshashila Institution and tweets at @HamsiniH

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Membership Can Only Get You So Far

India signed the MoO to accede into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation but membership means little unless reinforced by bilateral ties.

by Hamsini Hariharan (@HamsiniH)

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit held on 23-24th June gathered little attention because signing of Memorandum of Obligations hardly seems exciting in the glamorous world of foreign policy. At the 2015 Ufa Summit, it was agreed that India would be a full member of the SCO and is now expected to accede in 2017. India first became an observer of the SCO in 2005 and but it is unclear how much it has gained from membership since.

Opportunities to engage with Central Asia are rife; the region has abundant reserves of energy and minerals. India has few qualms about engaging with authoritarian regimes, unlike Western countries. But rather than repeating rhetoric about the potential of trade and relations with countries in Central Asia, what is required is intensification of policy. India’s ties with members of the SCO (not withstanding Russia and China) are only burgeoning. India’s trade with Kazakshtan in 2014-2015 amounted to nearly $952 million- a figure that is larger than the sum of India’s trade with the rest of the Central Asian countries.

Engagement between Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan (the only SCO non-member) and India remain in a fledgling state and generally consists of trade in pharmaceuticals, electrical and electronic items, cultural and technical exchanges. India’s relations with the two regional powers in the SCO have taken unique trajectories. Since the end of the Cold War, ever amicable Russia has been forced to deal with post Cold War geopolitics while India moved closer to the US. India and China continue to view each other’s rise with suspicions as all neighbours do. The SCO, like BRICS and the G-20, provides a platform for the three countries to interact. However, being part of the SCO does not mean that India will automatically be able to flex muscles in Eurasia. The regional geopolitics already sees a tug of power between China, Russia and extraregional powers like NATO and America.

The Narendra Modi government continued the policy legacy of the UPA government but garnered more attention because of the personal brand of the Prime Minister and improved public diplomacy skills. In 2014, the Modi Government announced the ‘Connect Central Asia Policy’ and started focusing on energy trade and transition 2015, construction of the long overdue TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan Pakistan-India pipeline) finally began but it estimated to be operational only by 2019. On 23rd June, Prime Minister Modi declared India’s intention to join International North-South Transport Corridor and sign the Ashgabat Agreement to facilitate trade and commercial activity with Eurasia, both of which are long term goals.

On one hand, we can interpret India’s policies in Central Asia as proactive. On the other hand, India’s bilateral measures with countries in the region need to be amped  up for any realisation of any long term policies. The SCO is constituted in a way that it has few multilateral structures such as the Secretariat, Council of Heads of State, Regional Counter Terrorism Structure (RCTS), Interbank Consortium, Business Council, the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group etc. The Shanghai Spirit bringing countries together for consensus based decision making. It uses overlapping bilateral ties in a patchwork format to strength the institution.

The SCO began as an organisation to resolve border disputes and to fight against the three evils i.e. terrorism, extremism and separatism which affected the authoritarian regimes in all of the member states. During the 2000s, the rise of the Taliban and the War on Terror saw ripple effects in the SCO members many of whom shared borders with Afghanistan. However, since the fall of Taliban, the organisation has outlived its initial goals of settling border disputes. It has expanded its mandate to economic ties and energy connectivity because of the complementarities between energy starved China and energy rich Central Asian states. Over the last decade, the SCO also proved as a support mechanism for authoritarian regimes during the Colour Revolutions, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and China’s crackdown in Xinjiang. However, the expansion of the mandate also means that the SCO has to manage to stay relevant amidst changing geopolitics. India’s accession to the SCO thus means little unless India intensifies bilateral ties with members in Central Asia.

Hamsini Hariharan is a Research Scholar with the Takshashila Institution and tweets at @HamsiniH

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No One Saw the Joint Statement

ASEAN adopted a rare tough stance on the South China Sea expressed in a Joint Statement and then immediately retracted it, indicating divisions amongst members.

by Hamsini Hariharan (@HamsiniH)

There was a statement and then there wasn’t. The China-ASEAN Special Foreign Minister’s Meeting, organised after a gap of three years, was convened on June 14th to discuss relevant issues before the ASEAN-China Summit to be held later this year. After the meeting, Malaysia released a Joint Statement on behalf of ASEAN. The statement was remarkable because ASEAN seemed to have strayed away from diplomatic niceties and had taken a stern stance on the South China Sea. AFP reported that the statement read,

“We expressed our serious concerns over recent and ongoing developments, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and which may have the potential to undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea…We emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation, which may raise tensions in the South China Sea…We articulated ASEAN’s commitment to maintaining and promoting peace, security and stability in the region, as well as to the peaceful resolution of disputes…This includes “full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) and the UN Charter…”

While the ASEAN refrains from mentioning China by name, the statement is important because it conveys the institution’s anxiety about the tensions in the South China Sea. Generally, the ASEAN calls for all parties to conform to the 2002 Code of Conduct and attempt to solve the issue peacefully. ASEAN does not directly take part in the conflict. Instead, it tries to act as a facilitator to resolve the conflict as it affects the national interests of several of its members and has implications for the whole region. As the South China Sea is an important shipping route, countries around the world are interested in ensuring the freedom of navigation in the areas.

Less than three hours later, the statement was retracted by the Malaysian government who said that it was not the official statement but the media guideline. Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia released individual official statements where they stressed the need for peaceful resolution of the dispute. Officials from Vietnam and Indonesia later said that the retracted statement was in line with the ASEAN standpoint.  The objection to the statement reportedly came from Laos (the current chairman of ASEAN) and Cambodia, both of whom share close relations with China. The episode evokes memories of the 2012 ASEAN Summit when the institution failed to release a joint communiqué for the first time in 45 years due to Cambodia’s objection to inclusion of the South China Sea issue in the statement.

ASEAN’s success as a multilateral institution lay in its unanimity and consensus based decision making. However for the last few years, arriving at the ASEAN consensus is becoming increasingly divisive, particularly on the issue of the South China Sea. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei-Darussalem (along with Taiwan) all have contesting claims to the boundaries of the South China Sea, most of which has been claimed by China under its ambiguous nine-dash line. As China began projects of land reclamation, construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, its military modernisation and increasingly assertive posture has worried the other claimants.

China is also using its bilateral relations with countries like Laos and Cambodia to undermine the multilateral consensus of the ASEAN. Some reports also debate if China’s ‘salami slicing strategy’ has now extended to Malaysia by leveraging its purchase of the debt ridden state entity, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (IMDB) reducing domestic pressure on Najib Razak in return for geopolitical payoffs. China denied the use of pressure either to influence ASEAN proceedings in this case or any others. The reasons behind the retraction of the rare tough stance taken by ASEAN remain unexplained. What it does indicate is that the ASEAN countries have failed to reconcile with a common viewpoint on the South China Sea issue.

The incident is also poignant because the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague is set to deliver a judgement on the second round of hearings on the arbitration proceedings initiated by Philippines in 2013. While China contests the validity of an arbitration proceeding, the decision will be an important geopolitical marker, depending on how different countries respond to it.

Hamsini Hariharan is a Research Scholar with the Takshashila Institution and tweets at @HamsiniH

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