Tuesday, 10 August 2021

When The New York Times Proved To Be No Better Than Pravda

There was an old American joke I read long ago about the former Soviet Union, and it went like this:

There was a race somewhere between an American car and a Russian car, and the American car won. (Of course the American car won! This is an American joke, remember?)

The next day's headlines in Pravda said, "The Russian car came second, while the American car was next to last."

Ha, ha! Oh, those Russians!

I've been watching the medal tally at the Tokyo Olympics over the last couple of weeks, and something puzzled me about American reporting on this.

Normally, medal tallies are shown in descending order of gold, then silver, and then bronze medals. The country with the most golds is on top. If two countries have the same number of golds, then the one with more silvers goes above the other. Ditto if the two countries have the same number of golds and silvers. The country with more bronze medals goes above the other.

Not according to the New York Times, though.

In their reporting, the medal tally was sorted in descending order of total number of medals.

But wait, there's more!

One would think there would be no wiggle room when comparing gold medals, right?

Apparently, there is. You can shrink the icons on China's row to make it look much shorter than it is. That way, the US won't look quite so bad.

Unbelievable, right? I guess that's what a "free press" means. You're free to bend and twist the truth in any way you like. Not that it didn't get called out and ridiculed on Twitter and Reddit. In that context, I learnt a new word - copium.

Luckily for them, the US ended the Olympics with more gold medals than China (in addition to having more medals overall), so it could legitimately be at the top of the medal tally, and the media subterfuge of the previous few days went by unremarked.

Now you know why I don't believe the Western press when it comes to reporting on China. If they can distort such obvious facts to create a misleading impression, what else are they distorting?

Sunday, 6 June 2021

Don't Buy The Covid Bioweapon Hypothesis? Let's Lead You There In Two Steps

[Update 12/06/2021: This post is no longer a prediction. Look for the link at the bottom of the post. The other shoe has already dropped.]

Given the subject matter at hand, I believe I will be forgiven for using an immunological phrase -- I still have antibodies in my system after a nasty bout of WMD-itis in 2003. In other words, if the Western establishment tries to demonise yet another country after the loot and plunder of Iraq, my reaction is (understandably) going to be one of contemptuous disbelief.

China is no angel in white, of course. Every conspiracy theory regarding China necessarily carries a non-zero probability at the very outset. In other words, no one trusts the Chinese government, and that includes a significant number of Chinese people.

Still, if we're trying to be as objective as implicit bias will let us be, we should be skeptical even if it's the devil himself who is being demonised.

My starting point in following the money is in recognising the most recent recurrence of the Thucydides Trap. The Thucydides Trap states that every rising power, however peaceful its intentions, necessarily threatens an established power, and history has shown that in 12 of the last 16 such cases, the situation has led to war. As a corollary, if a war is to be fought, it is in the interests of the rising power to delay the conflict until it is stronger, while the converse holds for the established power. It must strike before the rising power becomes any stronger.

In the context of the US and China, independent analysts have concluded that the US is under an imperative to move to contain China sooner rather than later, since every year's delay works to China's advantage.

But a move by the US against China will carry no legitimacy unless another convincing WMD story can be manufactured, and this is obviously proving hard to do since the boy has already cried wolf once too often.

A trial balloon was floated a year ago, and it was called the "Bioweapon hypothesis". It alleged that China deliberately engineered the SARS-CoV-2 virus to cripple the rest of the world while it surged ahead. If it had been widely accepted, that hypothesis should have stirred up enough outrage worldwide to endorse US-led punitive action against China. But as it happened, that hypothesis sank like a lead balloon with no takers.

However, such a hypothesis is vitally important to the US, because it remains the best basis for mobilising world opinion in favour of concerted action against China. The hypothesis needs to be revived through some other means.

And this is why I think we are now seeing the first of two steps through which we (even the WMD-immunised) will be led to accept the bioweapon hypothesis, and by extension, be led to support military/economic action against China.


Lots of whispered "evidence" in support of a Lab Leak Hypothesis is turning up, complete with little-known amateur actors, some with secret identities to boot, and documentation from obscure and now-sealed sources that, by definition, cannot be followed and verified. 

I predict that the other shoe will drop once this hypothesis gains sufficient acceptance, in the form of "evidence" that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is an arm of the Chinese military establishment.

Voila! Bioweapon.

The West has an inherent advantage in the propaganda war against China, which is that the Chinese government has inherently low credibility in the eyes of the rest of the world, and its denials are therefore going to be ineffectual from the very outset. Almost any charge can be made to stick, provided it sounds plausible.

The latest round of "evidence" in favour of the Lab Leak Hypothesis reads like the plot of a Sidney Sheldon novel. The report by Newsweek makes for a thrilling read.

My interpretation of this round of "evidence" covers the following points:

1. Western government and intelligence sources have no credibility anymore, thanks to WMD. Hence the source for the hypothesis has to be another set of actors.

2. Scientists and journalists are the obvious credible sources for such a hypothesis, but hardly any mainstream scientists or journalists have risen to the bait. Few have been willing to put their professional reputations on the line in support of this hypothesis.

3. Of the handful of media organisations willing to associate themselves with the hypothesis, none has high credibility. Media watcher site Ad Fontes Media doesn't seem to have a high opinion of any of the organisations (Business Insider, Mother Jones, The New York Post, and Fox News) that Newsweek listed in its latest report as being in its corner. These would be just the sort of news outlets that a government could use to push its views.

Ad Fontes Media's Media Bias chart showing the five media organisations that aligned themselves early on with the Lab Leak Hypothesis - not hugely confidence-inspiring

4. The Newsweek report describes the evidence gathered as establishing "probable cause -- a strong, evidence-based case for a full investigation". It carries a standard disclaimer ("None of this proves that the pandemic started in the Wuhan lab, of course: it's entirely possible that it did not."). And it heads off the demand for definitive proof with another disclaimer ("It's not clear that the best efforts of the U.S. and other nations to investigate the lab-leak hypothesis will ever turn up unequivocal evidence one way or another, at least without the full cooperation of China, which is unlikely.").

I have to wonder, if this is never going to go beyond the status of a hypothesis, why are we wasting our time on this? Unless the objective is something beyond finding the "truth".

5. Many of the players in the report are amateur investigators. That in itself is not necessarily a disqualification. However, the identities of some of the key players ("The Seeker", "Billy Bostickson") remain hidden, and it is unlikely that they can be cross-examined by anyone who wishes to. The nebulous nature of the main characters raises red flags with me.

6. Descriptions of the sources seem designed to prevent fact-checkers from verifying their veracity. ("he'd become an expert at searching the back alleys of the web, far beyond the well-lit places patrolled by Google", and "Shortly after The Seeker posted the theses, China changed the access controls on CNKI so no one could do such a search again."). In other words, we are told in advance that the evidence cannot be independently verified.

In short, the impression I get from this round of reporting is that a lot of mud is being thrown in the hope that some of it sticks. Given the pervasive suspicion of China among many, I'm sure some of this mud is going to stick.

From the enthusiastic forwards of these "findings" by many of my friends on social media, I'm going to accept that the Lab Leak hypothesis is going to find general consensus (even if I am myself unconvinced).

My immediate question is, what next?

A prediction - The other shoe is about to drop

Let me put my money where my mouth is, by making a prediction.

Once the Lab Leak Hypothesis is widely accepted, the other shoe is going to drop. We're going to be provided "evidence" (of similar quality) that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is an arm of the Chinese defence establishment. No amount of indignant protest from the Chinese government is going to be able to refute that allegation. Indeed, this could very well be an illustration of the well-known maxim, "Never believe a rumour until it has been officially denied".

Make no mistake, once the other shoe has dropped, the Bioweapon hypothesis is effectively legitimised. The SARS-CoV-2 virus originated from a lab controlled by the Chinese military establishment. Surely that could have had no benign intentions behind it.

And with that, the hawks will have the endorsement they need for the 13th violent enactment of the deadly Thucydides Trap.

[Update 12/06/2021: This has just happened.]


Thursday, 20 May 2021

The Origin Of The SARS-Cov-2 Virus And The Decoy Effect

Exhuming a body long buried

After months of seemingly universal satisfaction that the SARS-Cov-2 virus originated in the Wuhan wet markets, having crossed over from bats to humans through some intermediary species, there is now renewed interest in ascertaining its true origins.

The "Natural Origins" hypothesis has the virtue of being the simplest explanation that fits the facts, what is popularly known as Occam's Razor. Occam's Razor doesn't refute other hypotheses, but merely favours the Natural Origins hypothesis as the simplest explanation.

A new hypothesis gaining ground in some circles is that the virus was a genetically-engineered species that may have accidentally escaped from a research lab, more specifically the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Given that the virus was first detected in the city of Wuhan, this hypothesis has immediate appeal. The paper that discusses this idea in detail, and which most of its proponents point to, is one by British author, journalist and science writer Nicholas Wade. [Mind you, Wade is not a scientist but a popular science writer. His paper was not published in a peer-reviewed science journal but on Medium.com. Still, he has a certain amount of credibility thanks to his past writings, and the paper makes a compelling case.]

The "Lab Leak" hypothesis posits that the escape of the virus from a controlled environment into the wild was the result of slipshod systems and insufficient governance.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this hypothesis is that it does not ascribe malicious intent to any party.

There is another hypothesis that does.

This one is known as the "Bioweapon" hypothesis, and postulates that the Chinese government deliberately created and released the virus to bring the rest of the world to its knees while China's economy alone would remain untouched. Most commentators refer to this as a conspiracy theory and do not give it much credence.

Conspiracy theorists would love to believe that the nefarious Chinese establishment (symbolised here by DC Comics's villain Egg-Fu) deliberately created the virus to bring the rest of the world to its knees.

A fourth hypothesis owes its origin to Chinese researchers and authors, who postulate that the virus did not originate in China at all. They point to studies by Italian scientists to argue that the virus was detected in Italy long before the first detected outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan. For obvious reasons, this hypothesis is not taken very seriously by non-Chinese, since the nationality of its proponents seems to provide an explanation of why they would seek to disclaim a link between the virus and China.

So that's the landscape of competing hypotheses on the origin of SARS-Cov-2:

A. "Natural Origins"

B. "Lab Leak"

C. "Bioweapon"

D. "Not from China"

Which hypothesis do you favour?

All hypotheses are not created equal (or for the same purpose!)

I have an interesting meta-hypothesis of my own about these hypotheses.

There is a well-known tactic in Marketing known as the Decoy Effect. Given competing products A and B from two companies, how can either of the companies nudge consumers towards its own offering, apart from obvious techniques like advertising and sales promotion?


The Wikipedia example describes two products, each of which has an advantage and a disadvantage compared to the other.

A popular tactic is to introduce a third option that functions purely as a "decoy". In other words, the company introducing this third product does not expect customers to buy it. Its purpose is solely to reposition its existing product and the competitor's in order to make the former appear much more attractive.


As the Wikipedia example shows, the decoy can be designed in such a way that one of the products now appears superior to the other.



The Wikipedia entry also shows how a decoy can be designed to have exactly the opposite effect.

The Wikipedia examples above illustrate the general principle that a decoy must appear comprehensively inferior to the company's favoured product, but only partially inferior to the competitor's product (the principle of asymmetric dominance). Then a prospective customer will tend to favour the company's main product (because it is comprehensively superior to the decoy) over the competitor's offering (because it is not as comprehensively superior to the decoy).

The Decoy Effect as it applies to SARS-Cov-2 origin hypotheses

Given this quick introduction to the concept of the Decoy Effect, we can see a certain pattern to the four hypotheses on the origin of the virus.

"Natural Origins" was the original product. We could consider it to be the "Chinese" product, because China seems to be comfortable with this hypothesis.

"Lab Leak" is a competing product introduced by the West. It is meant to put China on the defensive while taking pains not to appear as a political attack. After all, the hypothesis involves elements such as Western funding and involvement by Western researchers, so accountability is diluted. Further, malicious intent is explicitly ruled out.

These two hypotheses are "products" looking to persuade prospective "customers". Which of these two would an unbiased customer buy?

To nudge the customer along, each of the competitors has introduced a "decoy".

The "Bioweapon" product is a decoy introduced by the West. It's introduced with disclaimers of its being a ridiculous conspiracy theory, so it was never intended to win supporters anyway. It's only intended to make the "Lab Leak" hypothesis appear more credible than "Natural Origins".

The "Bioweapon" and "Lab Leak" hypotheses support each other by claiming that the virus was deliberately engineered, and so they together exert a psychological influence that seems to outweigh the "Natural Origins" hypothesis, relying as it does merely on Occam's Razor.

Between these two hypotheses, though, Occam's Razor applies once again. Malicious intent requires a higher burden of proof than an accident or a mistake. And so the Lab Leak hypothesis is comprehensively "better" in terms of plausibility than the Bioweapon hypothesis. After all, apart from hardcore conspiracy theorists who want to believe the worst about China, most people would prefer the explanation of an innocent mistake rather than malicious intent. 

And that's the Western gambit. Introduce a decoy in the form of a conspiracy theory, and people will gravitate towards the more reasonable-sounding (but still China-blaming) Lab Leak hypothesis.

The Chinese decoy, on the other hand, is the hypothesis that the virus originated outside of China, much before it was detected in Wuhan. This hypothesis turns the seemingly damning indictment of first detection into a virtue. The virus had been circulating in other countries for months, according to this hypothesis, but it was China, with its superior scientific abilities, that was first able to detect it!

Analogously to the other decoy that we saw, the "Not from China" and "Natural Origins" hypotheses support each other in ascribing a natural origin to the virus. They thus exert a psychological influence away from the idea of a human-engineered virus. Between the two, the "Not from China" idea seems less credible because non-Chinese observers would ascribe a nationalistic motive to the argument of its proponents, and so the only credible hypothesis left standing is the "Natural Origins" one.

The Chinese gambit is therefore to introduce a decoy in the form of an overly defensive claim, so that people prefer the more reasonable-sounding Natural Origins hypothesis, which absolves China of any responsibility for the pandemic.

Is there an objective truth at all?

In sum, I believe that the search for the origins of the SARS-Cov-2 virus is not a search for truth, no matter what pious protestations we may hear, because such a search is compromised from the start. Two sophisticated marketers are engaged in a battle for the mind of a prospective customer, and that customer is all of us.

Knowing what you now know about the Decoy Effect, which hypothesis would you believe now?

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Quad Switch - How India Could Permanently Alter The Balance Of World Power (While Also Ensuring Its Own Best Interests)

A bolt from the blue

On April 7th 2021, less than a month after the first ever Quad Summit between the leaders of the US, India, Japan and Australia, the US Seventh Fleet issued a terse statement that it had "asserted navigational rights and freedoms approximately 130 nautical miles west of the Lakshadweep Islands, inside India's exclusive economic zone, without requesting India's prior consent, consistent with international law."

No doubt taken by surprise and embarrassed on the world stage by a country it had considered an ally, India lodged a muted protest, and the troubling episode raised questions about the alliance, especially the level of mutual respect on which it was based.

As a matter of principle, the US may have been right in asserting its freedom of navigation, since there is a difference between territorial waters and an exclusive economic zone. [Permission is required before a foreign ship enters a country's territorial waters. In contrast, an exclusive economic zone only means that a country has sole rights to exploit that area of the sea for economic gain, e.g., by fishing, drilling for offshore oil, etc. Merely sailing through a country's exclusive economic zone should not require permission.]

Setting aside questions of principle for the moment, what the US action demonstrated was its ready willingness to embarrass a country that was putatively a close ally in a strategically important grouping. The US perceived no negative consequences to itself from displeasing India, and the continuance of the relationship was taken for granted. That pointed diplomatic snub, and the lack of respect it implied, should be a reminder to India that its inclusion in the Quad is not a sign of its arrival on the global stage, but merely of its usefulness in the strategic plans of other nations.

With the wake-up call afforded by that splash of cold water by the US navy, what hard-headed analysis can India's policymakers carry out now?

Back to first principles

Here's my take on a hypothetical foreign policy shift by India that could be a geopolitical game-changer.

The big picture: Five centuries ago, with the age of colonialism, the West wrested power from the East, impoverishing and humiliating its great and rich civilisations, and has further succeeded in getting the rest of the world to play by rules that entrench rather than threaten Western power. However, Western power has been steadily flowing eastwards for a couple of decades now, and it could be argued that the only factor preventing a decisive restoration of the status quo ante is India's geopolitical ambivalence - its readiness to play handmaiden to the West against its fellow Eastern civilisations. There is no reason why the East should not reunite to dictate its own prosperity once again.

Let's start with some basic premises.

India has no fundamental quarrel with the leading powers of mainland Eurasia - China, Russia or Iran. These are all ancient civilisations that have co-existed for millennia. (A careful reading of history will show that India's current tensions with China are merely a border dispute that is very recent in that timescale, and further, of India's own making.)

In spite of cordial relations, India has no inherent alignment of interests with the countries of the West, and the relationship is in fact transactional. (For that matter, the national interests of Japan and Australia could also be more naturally aligned with those of China rather than the US, but that determination is for those countries to arrive at independently.)

Let us also agree on where the battle lines have been drawn.

China's swift rise over the last three decades has completely altered power equations around the world, but most emphatically in the Eurasian region. The most dramatic reset has been in Sino-Russian relations. At the time of the Chinese communist revolution in 1949, it was the former Soviet Union that was China's ally and senior partner. That relationship ruptured in 1969. Today, it has been restored, with Russia greatly diminished and willing to accept a junior role in its partnership with China. The two countries have been pushed into each other's arms because of open hostility from the US. The US has been aggressively arming Ukraine against Russia, and that could be a potential flashpoint in the near future.

Another major power in Asia is Iran, also an object of unbridled US hostility, including Trump's about-face that negated the normalisation promised by the Obama administration's civilian nuclear deal.

China, of course, has been identified by the US as their main geopolitical adversary today, and as independent analysts have pointed out, third countries have a stark "with us or against us" choice.

The China-Russia-Iran axis has been born of necessity, thanks to the unmistakeably hostile moves of the US against all of them.

The Quad alliance has a similar motivation, in that it is prompted by a shared fear of China.

As we can see, alliances are determined by geopolitical power struggles, and the current line-up of allies and adversaries has been determined as a result of the perspective and actions of the US.

It's instructive to consider that had India liberalised its economy earlier and grown faster than China, the US may have now enlisted China to help contain India. In geopolitics, there is no such thing as a "peaceful rise". All rising powers are inherently threatening to established powers. And hence there is no alliance that India "naturally" belongs to. 

India has independent agency

India does not have to blindly accept the cards that the US has dealt it and the world. It has the independent agency to look at geopolitics through its own lens, and determine for itself what sort of alliance would suit its interests best.

The battle lines having already been drawn, the composition of the two sides (apart from India) is now a given.

The questions India needs to ask itself are:

1. Where do the country's best interests lie? Should it remain in the US-led Quad? Should it be non-aligned between the blocs? Or should it switch sides?

As corollaries,

2. Are the democracies natural allies merely on account of their being democracies, or is this an appealing construct that helps the US? Remember that outside of the West, the US often finds it more convenient to form alliances with pliant dictatorships than with independent democracies.

3. Is India's perception of China as an adversary justified, or is this merely the result of unfortunate recent history and conditioned thinking?

I have in the past argued for Indian non-alignment between these two rival power blocs, but I now believe that the bolder option of switching sides should be seriously considered. Staying in the US-led Quad or being non-aligned are conventional options with largely predictable outcomes. In contrast, switching is a disruptive move with potentially large benefits for India, and the resulting shift in the balance of world power could itself mitigate the risks.

The battle lines as they have been drawn up suit the interests of the US, and a number of the consequences of India's current alignment with the US, most importantly the hostility of China, flow from that choice. On consideration, China is a threat to India only to the extent that India in turn positions itself as a threat to China. In other words, India can eliminate the threat from China by ceasing all acts of hostility and becoming an ally instead.

What the Chinese want is unquestioned recognition as the dominant power in Asia, but they are not interested in militarily invading or imposing a communist form of government on Asian countries. India does not need to fear Chinese interference in its internal affairs as a result of an alliance. As long as other countries cooperate with China, Beijing will allow them to coexist and even prosper. That's not a very different proposition from that offered by the United States!

There is thus no self-evident logic to India remaining in the US-led Quad. Forming a new Quad in alliance with China, Russia and Iran could in time begin to seem equally natural.

India's place - Perception and reality

While Indians tend to take great pride in the greatness of their own civilisation, some realism needs to temper that perception. In terms of relative power, India can only be a junior partner in either of these current groupings. It is grossly subservient to the US in the Quad (as has been so pointedly demonstrated by the Freedom of Navigation episode), and while it will be more influential within a China-led alliance, it will definitely be a junior partner.

In other words, India can never hope to be king. But it can be kingmaker. While its own power per se is limited, India is tremendously important in the world because it holds the balance of power.

India has the potential to bring about a very different world order, provided it alters its own mindset on two counts:

1. India needs to tell itself the truth about 1962. The Chinese did not stab India in the back after promising friendship. It was Nehru who rejected Zhou Enlai's peace deal in 1960, a deal that was extremely generous from today's perspective. It was Nehru (and his defence minister VK Krishna Menon) who needlessly provoked China with aggressive military intrusions that they called "Forward Policy". The Chinese merely counterattacked to teach Nehru a lesson, and then withdrew to the Line of Actual Control as before. The Chinese showed restraint in the face of unilateral Indian aggression. That was the true story of 1962.

2. India needs to accept the reality of its relative power with China. In the 1950s, and indeed, right up to the mid-1980s, there was rough parity between the two countries in economic and military terms, but the gap has widened to a factor of five in economic terms, with corresponding impacts on relative Comprehensive National Power. In any relationship with China, India will be the junior partner. It needs to acknowledge and accept that subordinate status.

Pax Sinica and a brave new world

Once India changes its current mindset, exciting options open up.

India can finally secure its land borders. 

The border dispute with China has always been about the mere demarcation of territory. Quite unlike the troubled relationship with Pakistan, no deeper historical resentments are involved. Zhou Enlai's generous offer in 1960 to give up all other Chinese claims in exchange for just Aksai Chin has probably lapsed. Settlement of the border dispute in today's world may require the giving up of Indian claims to Aksai Chin as well as the actual transfer of part of Arunachal Pradesh to China. Who knows, with shrewd bargaining, it may even be possible to get a much more favourable deal in exchange for the very considerable offer of an Indian defection! Once the prickly territorial questions are out of the way, the rest of the settlement will be a simple matter of agreeing the exact course of the Himalayan border, which in today's age, can be monitored to an accuracy of mere metres with GPS technology.

That will end the decades-long border dispute with China.

An additional factor in India's favour is that China also has an interest in seeing the India-Pakistan border dispute settled amicably, since the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, China's vital access route to the Indian Ocean, runs through the currently disputed region of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. In the event of conflict between India and Pakistan, Chinese economic interests will be at severe risk, and China would like to eliminate that risk.

Pakistan is effectively a Chinese vassal state, and so it is politically feasible to turn the Line of Control between India and Pakistan into a mutually accepted border with China's blessing, and to have that agreement honoured by the Pakistani establishment. The giving up of claims to all of Kashmir will be a bitter pill for both India and Pakistan, but the benefits of a settlement will be enormous.

The end of hostilities with Pakistan will be a natural corollary of the normalisation of relations with China, and will be a huge relief to both India and Pakistan.

It is hard to overstate the impact of such developments, since insecure land borders have shaped India's perceptions ever since its independence as a modern nation.

This is just for starters.

The holy grail is a free trade zone comprising all of Eurasia, with greatly eased movement of goods and people, and the fastest growth in living standards for the largest number of people ever in world history. China lifted 800 million people from poverty in a single generation. India lifted 270 million people from poverty during a single decade. Together, and in concert with other countries, such economic miracles can be replicated throughout the Eurasian region.

Linking India's Golden Quadrilateral to China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) can unlock synergies that ripple beyond the two countries. Instead of competing for influence in other South- and South-East Asian states, India and China could collaborate in looping them into an economic free trade zone with seamless transport and communication infrastructure. For example, a land link from South India to Sri Lanka will be a reality if both India and China push for it.

All of Asia and much of Europe will become part of a giant economic zone, and every country in its ambit will see a spurt in growth and living standards.

Indians may remain reluctant to admit it, but they will owe their new era of prosperity to this Pax Sinica. They can of course take legitimate pride that they played a key role in bringing it about.

The repercussions

The natural question to ask is, will this shift not antagonise the US, and will it not have negative repercussions for India?

I believe that while the US is certain to be antagonised, it will find itself powerless to take hostile action against India. Virtually the whole of mainland Asia (including Russia) will be part of a united bloc under the leadership of China, and China will then act to protect its interests. India's defection will greatly improve China's own security situation, and together with Russia, China will in turn be able to provide a security guarantee to India against hostile US action.

It could be argued that India's defection carries risk as well as its own mitigation. The US could in fact find itself greatly diminished in power across the board as a result of this dramatic shift, and therefore less able to convey its displeasure in the terms the world has learnt to fear.

Europe may also decide to loosen its tight embrace of the US in the face of a united Asian alliance, which is also a much larger market than any other in the world. The incentive for trade could force Europe to break with the US and engage more positively with the Asian bloc. [There are signs that Europe is already beginning to walk a line independent of the US, as illustrated by this statement by Emmanuel Macron and by the joint statement by Macron and Angela Merkel.]

As for the remaining members of the erstwhile Quad, Australia and Japan will also be under tremendous pressure to distance themselves from the US.

As has been remarked, the Australian and Chinese economies are complementary, not competitive, in nature. Australia grows and prospers in tandem with China. It makes no sense for Australia to antagonise China, and there is tremendous internal pressure being put on the Australian government to step back from its adversarial position and normalise relations with China. My guess is that Australia will quietly fold in the next year or two regardless of what India does.

Japan is another country that needs to swallow its pride and do what is in its own best interests. Japan is a rapidly declining power, with an ageing demography and an economy that has been stagnating for well over two decades. Its path to continued prosperity lies in vigorous economic ties with China. The two things Japan needs to do first are these:

1. Apologise for the atrocities committed by its troops in World War II, such as the Nanjing massacre, and make reparations, however symbolic.

2. Give up its claims to the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands. Unlike the Malvinas (Falkland) islands fought over by the UK and Argentina, these islands are uninhabited. Their "strategic" value is paradoxically negated by the fact that claiming them turns China into a powerful enemy, when it could be just a trading partner.

Over to you, India

All of these strategic pieces fall into place based on what India chooses to do. India can be a blocker, or an enabler, of the shift of power from the West back to the East, and the start of a new Eastern Golden Age.

The main impediments to such a foreign policy shift are in the Indian mind - an irrational fear of China, emotional baggage from a false narrative of the 1962 war, a misplaced pride in the second-to-none greatness of the Indian civilisation that precludes acceptance of a subordinate role in Asian affairs, a naive belief that democracies are natural allies when realpolitik has repeatedly demonstrated otherwise, and most importantly, policy inertia and the timidity to dream bold dreams.

[Also read my earlier post "How Indians Should Learn To Think About China".]

Thursday, 1 April 2021

In Defence Of Vivekananda

In the charged political atmosphere of today's India with its raging culture war between liberals and Hindu nationalists, old icons are constantly exhumed and reinterpreted from different ideological viewpoints, as can be expected.

One of those controversial personalities is Swami Vivekananda.

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)

A 19th century Hindu monk, he is regarded by some as a moderniser who helped Hindus gain a renewed sense of pride in their religion as an enlightened philosophy at par with the world's best. By others, he is seen as a dishonest interpreter of Hinduism and an apologist for some of its negative aspects, such as the caste system.

I'm going to look at Vivekananda afresh, from a personal and empathetic point of view. This is not to say that I am going to agree with his worldview or message, just that I will show that his approach to Hinduism was understandable given the circumstances that he was in.

Vivekananda and I

Vivekananda was born Narendranath Datta in 1863, exactly a hundred years before I was, but the environment in which he grew up was markedly different from what I experienced in my childhood. There were some similarities, of course. Both of us were born into relatively well-to-do Hindu families, with well-educated fathers (my mother was also well-educated), and both of us were fortunate enough to receive a good education, acquiring fluency in the English language along the way.

But the similarities ended there. I was born in an India that had been free of foreign rule for 16 years. The constitution of independent India was deliberately secular, and the prevailing philosophy as taught in schools reinforced the idea that all religions in the country were equal. It was not considered inferior to be a Hindu, and neither was it considered superior. All religions were considered equal but different.

The prevailing environment could not have been more different during Vivekananda's childhood. India was under the rule of a foreign colonial power. All authority figures when he was growing up were either British, or Indians profoundly influenced by Western philosophies, such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, and Keshab Chandra Sen. The prevailing attitude towards the Hindu religion was not that it was equal-but-different, but that it was significantly deficient in a number of ways.

Hinduism, in both its philosophy and its practice, was being critiqued from more than one angle. Christian theologians had been propounding the view that idolatry and polytheism were inferior beliefs, and this view had been accepted to varying degrees by various Indian thinkers of the time. Simultaneously, unjust Indian social practices, such as the harsh treatment of widows and the widespread practice of untouchability, were highlighted as backward aspects of the Hindu religion.

When I imagine looking at the world through the eyes of a Hindu boy born into that environment, I can feel a certain defensiveness about my religious identity, which I did not feel growing up in the India that I experienced.

What would I do if I were Narendranath Datta? Remember that, as an educated person, I would be constantly interacting with Western and Western-influenced people, and so I would not have had the convenient option of retreating into my own community, pretending that the non-Hindu world did not exist. I would be constantly reminded of my (inferior) Hindu identity.

I can see only two possibilities in that situation.

One option would have been resignation, to go through life passively, with a permanent feeling of inferiority.

The other option would have been surrender, to convert to Christianity or publicly adopt a philosophy that would be considered enlightened by that society.

To his credit, Narendranath Datta took neither of these paths. He neither resigned himself to an inferior status, nor did he surrender his cultural identity to adopt a foreign one. He chose a third path, which was to reinvent his own identity so that it became respectable in the Western-dominated society he lived in.

I think that's admirable. But how did he do that?

Let me pause to reflect on an incident from my own childhood.

My experience as a social outcast

When I was in primary school in Bangalore, sometime in Year 4 or Year 5, I was out in the playground at recess, along with a few others from my class. I saw that some of the students were pointing at something on the ground, and standing back at a respectful distance. I followed their gaze and saw a small garden lizard, not more than a couple of inches long. It was simply sitting on the ground with its head raised, not moving, just blinking and twitching its tail a bit. The other students were standing back in a circle, in what I interpreted to be fear.

A lizard of the kind I saw long ago in my school's playground


In my desire to be seen as a hero, I did what I'm deeply ashamed of today. I moved forward and stomped on the poor animal with my shoe, crushing it to death. I then stepped back triumphantly and looked at the others, expecting admiration for my bravery.

I was shocked and dismayed at their reaction. They recoiled from me, and I quickly gathered the reason. They were not condemning me for my wanton cruelty towards a harmless animal. Rather, they believed that I had committed a sin because that particular type of lizard had some superstitious significance for them. They were drawing back from me, not because they saw me as cruel, but because they saw me as cursed.

In that moment, I keenly felt the sting of social ostracism. I think I ran to a nearby tap and washed my hands. I remember that two girls ran up to me and touched me with the leafy branch of a plant, then withdrew.

I sensed that I had committed an act of ritual impurity, and that I would have to be ritually purified in order to be socially rehabilitated.

I realised even then that tackling my peers' superstitious belief head-on would have got me nowhere. It would not have served my immediate interest (which was re-acceptance into the community) to argue that their notions of ritual purity and impurity were irrational. I therefore instinctively adopted a different strategy.

In Improvisational Theatre or Improv, the fundamental rule is never to contradict what your fellow actor says, but to agree with it and build on it. My strategy to deal with my social ostracism was similarly not to challenge its basis but to accept it up to a point, and then railroad it along a direction more friendly to my interests.

So this is what I said to the crowd around me:

"It's all right. I've washed my hands and touched the green."

I've washed my hands and touched the green.

I knew I was "bullshitting" even as I said it, but I realised that I could only fight superstition with superstition. I could not hope to debunk it. So killing a lizard was a sin. Fine. But I washed my hands and touched the green. That washed away my sin and purified me.

I think my explanation partly convinced them. I don't remember what exactly happened after that, but there was no permanent ostracism. Things went back to normal fairly quickly.

So that's how I dealt with a situation where I felt defensive about myself when society looked at me as someone who was somehow deficient or inferior.

The Vivekananda strategy

I can therefore empathise with the strategy that Vivekananda followed in order to rehabilitate himself with honour into a society that was otherwise critical and judgemental of his Hindu identity.

First, to blunt the Christian theological opposition to idolatry and polytheism, he dusted off one of the schools of Hindu philosophy, namely Advaita Vedanta, to argue that Hinduism too, at its core, postulated a single, formless deity called the Brahman, or Supreme Consciousness. He explained away both polytheism and idolatry by positioning them as 'aspects of divinity'. In his retelling, polytheism and idolatry were not sinful, but merely harmless ways to make an abstract concept concrete enough for ordinary people to comprehend. At its core, Hinduism was really no different from Christianity!

Second, in the spirit of Improv, he accepted the criticism of Hinduism's many social ills, but only up to a point. He joined in the condemnation of some of them, such as the poor treatment of widows.

I do not believe in a God or religion which cannot wipe the widow's tears or bring a piece of bread to the orphan's mouth.

But he railroaded criticism of others by accepting them only as failures of contemporary Hindu society, not of the Hindu religion itself.

This is what many of his critics today call out as dishonesty. Vivekananda claimed that caste in Hinduism was much more benign as a concept than how it was applied in practice. He made it seem like caste was an egalitarian division of labour which had unfortunately been interpreted as a hierarchy of superior and inferior human beings. He claimed that a single person could belong to all four castes depending on what they were doing.

Take a man in his different pursuits, for example: when he is engaged in serving another for pay, he is in Shudrahood; when he is busy transacting some piece of business for profit, on his own account, he is a Vaishya; when he fights to right wrongs, then the qualities of a Kshatriya come out in him; and when he meditates on God or passes his time in conversation about Him, then he is a Brahmin.

He referred to the scriptural concept that the three Gunas, or inherent qualities, were determinants of caste, but here he cleverly projected the view that anyone could attain the status of any caste by merely manifesting the requisite guna.

As there are Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas — one or other of these Gunas more or less — in every man, so the qualities which make a Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, or Shudra are inherent in every man, more or less. But at times one or other of these qualities predominates in him in varying degrees, and it is manifested accordingly.

This interpretation is patently false, as a careful reading of the Bhagavadgita will readily show. There is no scriptural basis to believe that gunas are capable of changing a person's caste on a minute-by-minute basis, as Vivekananda implies. On the contrary, gunas are held to determine one's caste upon one's rebirth, and not before. A person's caste is fixed at birth and cannot be changed. Further, since the gunas are ranked from best (Sattva) to worst (Tamas), the castes that correspond to them are also ranked in a moral hierarchy - Brahmin (Sattva), Kshatriya (Rajas), Vaishya (a combination of Rajas and Tamas), and Shudra (Tamas alone). And as a further corollary, since one's birth in a caste is determined by the gunas one had exhibited in a previous birth, those born into a lower caste must have been bad people in their previous birth, not to be pitied or uplifted, but to be condemned and kept down.

[For clarity, "caste" above refers to the four broad varnas alone, and not to the myriad jaatis under them.]

It's clear that Vivekananda was bullshitting to make himself and his religion look better, in the face of social criticism. It was a clever combination of cherrypicking, deliberate misinterpretation, and projection of indefensible injustices as latter-day social corruptions of an otherwise benign philosophy.

But as I said before, I can entirely empathise. Faced with an analogous situation, I readily took recourse to dishonest narratives to rehabilitate myself into respectable society, so I can hardly cast the first stone at Vivekananda.

And there rests my defence.

Epilogue

I cannot help but compare and contrast Narendranath Datta with his partial namesake Narendra Modi. I believe both of them are examples of cultural insecurity. One disguised his insecurity with philosophical posturing. The other has turned it into a narrative of Hindu victimhood, and exploits it for political gain.

What the two Narendras share in common is not Hindu pride but cultural insecurity

A secure Hindu in today's India should be able to accept legitimate criticism of their religion, in the light of modern humanistic thought, and drive reforms without being defensive. Casteism and misogyny are obvious elements in Hinduism crying out to be jettisoned. Of course, superstitious beliefs are another obvious target, but that could be seen as a bridge too far, since the path of rationalism may result in the abandonment of the religion altogether!

[Also read my blog post "The Three Hinduisms".]

Sunday, 31 January 2021

How I Made Pho A Friend

They say that if you ever fall off a horse when learning to ride, you should try to get back in the saddle as quickly as possible, otherwise the fear of failure will never go away.

Last week, one of my Facebook friends posted some appetising photos of (the Vietnamese dish) Pho that she had made. Inspired, I got the recipe from her and attempted to make the dish myself. Alas, it was such a catastrophic failure that the whole pot had to go straight to the compost bin. (Yes, it really was that bad.)

Looking to get back in the saddle as quickly as possible, I enlisted the help of my better half to make a second attempt the very next day. Even though she had never made Pho before either, she had the benefit of a few decades of culinary experience, and the wisdom that brings with it.

We went back to the drawing board together, and studied (vegetarian) recipes from more than one source, just to get a feel for the philosophy of the dish. Actually, I would call it the architecture of the dish.

Pho consists of three architectural components.

1. The stock, or broth. This is a clear liquid that acts as the base, and is responsible for giving the dish its distinctive flavour. All the ingredients that go to make up this stock are to be filtered out and thrown away once their flavours have been infused into the liquid.

2. A set of "global" ingredients that will be compiled into the stock and made available to all "users". Usually but not always, these will be cooked vegetables.

3. A set of "run-time" ingredients that each user will configure for themselves when they download the dish into their local environment (bowl). Usually but not always, these will be raw vegetables, noodles and condiments.

Once I understood the architecture of Pho, I realised why my previous attempt had been such a dismal failure. As we say in the IT Architecture profession, "Architecture without implementation is a daydream; implementation without architecture is a nightmare."

I had jumped straight into implementation like an immature developer, without bothering to understand the architecture of the dish. No wonder I had ended up with a nightmare.

Hopefully, now that we had an architecture and were going to implement it, all would be goodness.

And it was.

Here's a sneak preview of the final result.

A bowl of Pho as deployed to a particular user's customised environment

On with the recipe, then!

1. The stock or broth

The main ingredients required to make the stock are these:

One or two sliced onions (depending on the quantity of water used), roasted and slightly charred, so as to acquire a mildly burnt flavour.

Chopped ginger, also roasted and slightly charred.

A few garlic pods, chopped and fried in oil

Spices, dry roasted:

A stick of cinnamon

Two whole pieces (stars) of star anise

A teaspoon of fennel seeds

A few cloves

A few cardamom pods

Any other vegetables except brassicas (i.e., avoid cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, etc.)

Put 4 cups of water (or 8 cups if serving 4 people) in a slow cooker and add all of the above ingredients in suitable quantities for that volume of water. Cook at high heat for about 4 hours, then filter out all the solid ingredients, leaving behind a clear liquid. This is the broth.

Taste it, and add salt and soy sauce in judicious quantities.

2. Global ingredients

Place pieces of cauliflower, carrot, beans, edamame, etc., in a steaming tray and cook until they're the right mix of crisp and tender.

Cut some lemon slices but do not cook them.

Add all the global ingredients to the broth. This is what all users will get.

Global ingredients floating in broth


3. Run-time ingredients

Add rice noodles to boiling water, cover with a lid and leave for a while until fully soft and expanded. Wash in cold water, filter and set aside in a separate bowl.

Chop mushrooms, fry in oil and set aside in a separate bowl.

Set aside bowls for each of the following ingredients:

Chopped spring onions/shallots

Chopped coleslaw vegetables (cabbage, carrot, onions)

Chopped mint and basil

Sprouted moong beans

Chopped jalapeno peppers in a mixture of vinegar and soy sauce

Some hot sriracha sauce

Run-time ingredients, each in a separate bowl, ready for users to optionally add to their individual servings of broth (which already contains all the global ingredients, of course)

It turns out that this architecture is highly democratic. Those who don't like mushrooms don't have to add them to their bowls. Those who wish to avoid carbs can ignore the rice noodles. Those who can't handle spice can skip the jalapeno peppers and the sriracha sauce.

With this componentised architecture, users get to eat a dish customised to their taste, and everyone is happy.

I thanked my better half for helping me get back in the saddle, and she thanked me for introducing her to a new horse.

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

The Perils Of A Post-Trump World

Ding, dong, the witch is dead!

Much of the world, not just the blue part of the US, is celebrating the exit of the obnoxious Donald Trump. This was a man who managed to offend practically everyone, while appealing only to the insecurities and base emotions of his supporters.

But now that he's gone, what can we expect from his successor?

I think it would be a good idea for those who wanted to see Trump gone to step back a bit from the polemical view of Trump as the devil incarnate and Biden as an angel in white. The situation is far more nuanced, especially for those of us in the rest of the world outside the US.

What I wish for is a geopolitical stalemate where the US and China keep each other honest, and the rest of the world stays safe as a consequence. What I fear most is a cosy backroom deal between Biden and Xi that carves the rest of the world up between two rapacious superpowers.

For a start, Trump was a refreshingly different president from all of his predecessors, because the ugliness and naked self-interest in US foreign policy was laid bare for all to see. There was no pretence that the US stood for anything higher than its own self-interest. In being so famously transactional, Trump reduced the image of the US from its historical projection of exceptionalism to one where it was just another country with its own axe to grind. It was a bit of unwitting honesty from an American president not seen since the days of "Honest Abe".

That image may not altogether vanish, since the world cannot unsee what it has once seen.

Biden and his team will of course do their best to show that the US is back in the hands of the adults in the room, and the old, familiar lectures on freedom, democracy and human rights will once again be selectively heard whenever the US wants to effect a regime change to its advantage.

Even as things return to the old normal, disquieting aspects to the Biden administration are already beginning to be seen.

The first few appointees of Biden's team have been lobbyists and insiders of the Pentagon and the arms industry. His secretary of state is a known hawk

Watch the easy camaraderie between Antony Blinken (Democrat), and his interrogator Sen Lindsey Graham (Republican) during the former's confirmation hearing as incoming Secretary of State. US foreign policy stays constant, with bipartisan consensus.

For those with hopes of a more peaceful world, this is bad news. The arms industry thrives when there are conflagrations around the world, and so it is unlikely that President Biden is going to wind back the wars.

Right on cue, there have been bomb blasts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Algeria, Yemen and Syria. If an American president ever wanted an excuse not to draw down overseas troops, he will not want for options.

That's not the only piece of bad news.

One of the things that Trump should be given credit for was his recent approach to China. After some leniency in the earlier part of his term, Trump swung around to suspicion and hostility towards China, especially after Covid. He began to push back on China in every sphere. He did not blink on trade, and he began to unabashedly cultivate "the Quad" (consisting of the US, Japan, India and Australia) to signal his willingness to confront China militarily. His accompanying rhetoric was harsh and aggressive too.

China under Xi has been a bully, and in the manner expected of bullies faced with credible threats, the dragon blinked. Surprisingly meek and conciliatory statements issued from Beijing. The wolf warrior diplomats went into retreat.

China has no intention to pick a fight with the US
-- Wang Yi, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister - Dec 18, 2020

It remains to be seen whether Biden will keep up that pressure. As a realist, I try to follow the money. The US arms industry gains from the forever war in the Middle East. China wants the freedom to expand its tentacles throughout Asia and up to the doors of Europe through its Belt and Road Initiative. It's not so much "free trade" as the ability for China to sell to every corner of the globe. The trade war between the US and China is hurtful to both.

A new administration in Washington is an opportunity for both countries to reset their relationship to mutual advantage. What I fear most is a backroom deal to avoid the trap of a new Cold War and to instead establish a cosy duopoly. The US keeps its existing backyards of the Americas and Europe, and gets to play its deadly war games in the Middle East. China gets untrammeled overlordship over all of Asia, including the Indian subcontinent. A new agreement is signed between the two superpowers of the East and the West that ends their bruising trade war.

[For countries like India, this would be unqualified bad news. The US has been an unreliable ally to India even at the best of times. (At the worst of times, it has been a vicious and vindictive enemy, as Nixon and Kissinger demonstrated during the 1971 Bangladesh war.) Abandonment of India by the US following a duopoly deal would mean that any putative hyphenation between India and China would disappear at a stroke. With the role of the US abruptly switched from security guarantor to the ally of an adversary, India's strategic options would narrow precipitously, and its fate would be left to the tender mercies of China. India would have to make significant territorial amends for its recent show of resistance to China's border incursions, and would have to very publicly accept China's suzerainty over all of Asia, including its own neighbourhood. It would be an unprecedented cultural humiliation in addition to being a permanent economic impost on future growth.

Australia, as part of the Anglosphere's "Five Eyes" alliance, will probably continue to receive US protection, but India will be jettisoned without a second thought. The fate of Taiwan and Japan is uncertain.]

Not all aspects of the US-China duopoly deal are likely to be settled quickly and amicably. The most interesting item on the negotiating table would be Africa, I imagine. There is no clear early winner between the US and China in terms of influence over Africa, and the continent could turn into a battleground. I see Africa as the new Poland for two schemers to pretend to agree on, before one of them betrays the other.

To sum up, it may be too early to go, "Ding dong, the witch is dead!" The main peril of the post-Trump era is the possible start to the new joint reign of the Wicked Witch of the West and the Wicked Witch of the East. The rest of the world should hunker down for a long and harsh winter.