Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Sideswipe

By Ana Samways

In scenes eerily reminiscent of Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, a "monster" rabbit has apparently been rampaging through vegetable patches in a northern England village, ripping up leeks and munching turnips.

Angry gardeners in Felton, near Newcastle, have now mounted an armed guard to protect their prized cabbages and parsnips. "They call it the monster. It's very big - it's nearly the size of a dog," said Joan Smith, whose son Jeff owns one of the plots under attack. "It's eating everything, all the vegetables," she told Reuters. "They are trying to shoot it. They go along hoping to catch it but I think it's too crafty."

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Not to be confused with the Sandra Bullock rehab movie or the British virus thriller: A new book called 28 Days - What Your Cycle Reveals About Your Love Life, Moods and Potential combines the flakiness of astrology with women's menstrual cycles. For example, "Days six through 10, oestrogen levels are high, brain skills are sharp, it's a good time to ask for a raise. Thanks to your hormones, you are also prettier during these days." The rest of the book involves the best day in your cycle to start a diet. (Source: nerve.com)

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Would you believe our very own Auckland City Council has been awarded an international Pigasus Award? These honours are given out each year by a bunch of sceptics at the James Randi Educational Foundation in the US. Our city council was named "the funding organisation that supported the most useless study of a supernatural, paranormal or occult claim" following a dubious funding decision reported in the Herald on Sunday last year. So if you think a business-class junket around the world for a couple of councillors and their lackeys is a waste, remember this is the same local body that awarded $2500 of ratepayers' money to the Foundation For Spiritualist Mediums (FSM) to teach people to communicate with the dead. An FSM spokesperson claimed: "There are a lot of people who have problems communicating with the spirit world and don't know how to deal with it." Fortunately, some council members objected and the amount was reduced to $2500 from the original $4500. The defending members supported the decision as contributing to Auckland city's community vision. "Well, if they're already having visions, perhaps they don't need the assistance of the FSM," say the sceptics. (Source: Randi.org)

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And now, something a little more serious. While pootling around the sedate streets of suburban Auckland last week, I experienced three near-misses with boy racers. While a friend and I were walking to the local fish and chip shop in New Windsor with our nearly 3-year-olds, a souped-up, low-slung car came speeding along New Windsor Rd, took the corner into Bollard Rd too fast, hit the kerb, spun 360 degrees, recovered and drove off. Remarkably, the driver managed not to hit any pedestrians or other cars. A few days later, while taking my nearly 3-year-old to daycare, the same thing happened again at the end of a Mt Albert street. A young guy in a beat-up Ford Laser took the corner of Parkdale and Chatham too fast and spun 360 degrees, crossing on to my side of the road. Had I not slammed on the brakes and had the nearly 3-year-old been slightly more co-operative getting into his booster, we would've been toast. Later the same day, a pack of teens (again taking the corner too fast) veered into my path, over-corrected, recovered and sped off toward Linwood Ave's many exciting speed bumps. This anecdotal information, coupled with neighbourhood stories of late-night street racing, has led me to a theory. Instead of fanging it down the motorways and main drags, are boy racers preferring the less policed back streets of low traffic neighbourhoods in which to hoon around?

Editorial: Diplomacy not nukes key to Iran

The White House is understandably frustrated that its attempts to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions are being undone. Even United Nations sanctions are no longer certain, given the reservations of Russia and China. There is no clear international strategy to gain Tehran's co-operation, a shortcoming that is encouraging Iranian belligerence. Almost every week, a new addition to its military hardware is announced.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that the United States would consider a military strike to prevent Iran developing its own atomic warheads. Or that this, because of America's commitment in Iraq, would have to take the form of a missile attack against Iran's main centrifuge plant at Natanz. What is startling is that the Bush Administration proposes to use nuclear weapons. And that this has become the subject of detailed operational planning. "Bunker buster" tactical nuclear weapons are, it has decided, the only guaranteed means of destruction.

The best that can be said of this approach is that it has a certain logic from an intelligence perspective. Unlike the situation before the invasion of Iraq, there is no disagreement over Iran's ambitions and the threat they pose. Western intelligence agencies are certain Tehran is trying to develop atomic weapons. They do not accept the view that its interest lies only in nuclear energy. There, however, any rationale for a nuclear attack ends.

The Bush Administration, as in Iraq, appears to have no comprehension of the consequences. It imagines an assault would be humiliating for Iran's leaders, and the catalyst for "regime change" through a public uprising. That is risible. Far more likely, Iranians, not to speak of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, would be incensed. Direct Iranian intervention in the Shia region of southern Iraq would be merely the first vestige of that anger.

An awareness of the potential consequences, not to speak of the enormity of using nuclear weapons, means the US would struggle to gain any international backing. Even Britain, a faithful ally in Iraq, is appalled. Its Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has called the nuclear plan "completely nuts". The US people will surely think the same. Iraq offered a graphic lesson in the consequences of braggadocio. A new poll shows just 36 per cent of Americans approve of President George W. Bush's job performance.

The White House has, in fact, only one valid option. It must pursue a diplomatic solution, no matter how much Iran's sabre-rattling annoys and how great the impulse to squash its nuclear ambitions before they can reach fruition. And in this situation, carrots, not sticks, offer the strongest potential. The overriding concern must be to ensure the international community retains an overview of the Iranians' nuclear activities through the presence on the ground of the United Nations watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

That may mean Tehran's right to a civilian nuclear energy programme must be accepted. The US conceded that right to North Korea last year as part of the framing of a fragile pact. There is also merit in a Russian proposal that would see Iran using enriched uranium supplied and controlled by an existing nuclear nation. Compromises of this sort will have to be made to gain Iranian co-operation.

President Bush, it seems, is now much concerned with his legacy. He believes history will treat him kindly if he has the courage to "save" Iran though a nuclear attack. The perversity, and unacceptability, of such a course must be impressed upon him by the international community. As must the fact that history will look most kindly on the orchestrator of a settlement that brings Tehran back from the nuclear-weapons brink.

Michael Richardson: UN must move on Iran's atomic plans

A team of United Nations weapons inspectors is in Iran this week to check whether it will comply with a resolution of the UN Security Council calling on Tehran to halt its suspect nuclear activities.

But with China and Russia opposed to sanctions against Iran based on suspicion it is seeking nuclear weapons while the United States, Britain and France want selective penalties applied if diplomacy fails, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are deeply divided over how to proceed.

Each has veto power over Council decisions and their recent meeting in Berlin again exposed the split over strategy on handling Iran. Beijing and Moscow insisted that sanctions would only provoke Tehran and fan instability in the energy-rich Persian Gulf region, which supplies critically important crude oil to China and other users in Asia and is set to be the source of increasing amounts of natural gas.

In rejecting sanctions, Dai Bingguo, China's Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, made a thinly veiled criticism of the conflict in Iraq caused by the US-led invasion in 2003 when he said that "there has already been enough turmoil in the Middle East. We do not want to see new turmoil being introduced to the region."

A day before the Berlin meeting, the UN Security Council, after three weeks' wrangling, approved a watered-down statement that gave Iran 30 days to end its uranium enrichment programme. The resolution called on the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to report back before the end of this month on Iran's response. Both China and Russia resisted US pressure for language that would have called Iran's nuclear activities a threat to peace and security. The most sensitive of these activities were concealed from the IAEA for 18 years until revealed by an Iranian opposition group in 2002.

"Before we call any situation a threat, we need facts, especially in a region like the Middle East, where so many things are happening," said Sergei Lavrov, Russia's Foreign Minister. "So far, they have not been provided."

Since Iran has cut international nuclear co-operation and resumed enrichment-related work, the IAEA in its next report is unlikely to be able to go much beyond what it has said previously: that it cannot prove Tehran has a weapons programme but can't be certain it hasn't.

In this stalemate situation, Western officials and nuclear analysts fear that Iran is intensifying efforts to build a bomb from highly enriched uranium. The country is now reported to be on the verge of mastering a critical step in building and operating a gas centrifuge plant that could produce significant amounts of enriched uranium for either peaceful or military purposes.

If enriched to less than 5 per cent - as Tehran says it plans to do - the output could only be used as fuel for nuclear power plants to generate electricity. But if purified further to at least 80 per cent through cascades of many interconnected centrifuges, the product would be suitable for making a crude nuclear bomb.

John Negroponte, the US director of national intelligence, said in February that if Iran continued on its current path, it "will likely have the capability to produce a nuclear weapon within the next decade". This is generally interpreted to mean that it will be five or 10 years before Tehran has nuclear arms. Iran is known to have had problems operating enrichment cascades and preparing the uranium feedstock.

Unlike North Korea, which is thought to have several nuclear bombs and to be making at least several more each year from plutonium, Iran has not yet crossed the nuclear weapons threshold. A five or 10-year lag before it does so would appear to allow time for negotiations or, as the threshold draws nearer, tougher measures.

However, Robert Joseph, the US undersecretary of state for arms control, said last month that Iran might only be months away from the "point of no return" - the moment when it has the technical ability to start producing enriched uranium for a bomb.

This has fuelled media reports that the US, backed by Israel, may launch air attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities, even though they are widely dispersed, tightly guarded and in some cases deep underground.

Adding to the sense of urgency is a new report from two arms control experts at the Institute for Science and International Security in the US which concludes that it may only take Iran three years to produce its first crude nuclear weapon from highly enriched uranium. One of the authors of the report, David Albright, is a former IAEA weapons inspector.

Of course, if Tehran does indeed want nuclear arms its schedule could be delayed by technical problems. But enough is known about Iranian enrichment plans and activities to suggest that hard decisions on countering proliferation cannot be postponed indefinitely.

* The writer, a former Asia editor of the International Herald Tribune, is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.

Greg Ansley: Beijing's moves have Canberra in a bind

There were furrowed brows behind the smiles as Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao flew out of Australia last week bound for Fiji and the first China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum, where friends of Beijing were to be courted heavily.

Wen did not disappoint his hosts. For those island states which did not recognise Taiwan, Wen delivered loans totalling 3 billion yuan ($615.54 million) for economic development, removed import tariffs and cancelled debt for the poorest, promised to provide free malaria medicines to stricken countries, and added Papua New Guinea, Samoa and the Federated States of Micronesia to the list of destinations Chinese tourists are allowed to visit.

No one in Canberra could publicly object to this kind of largesse in a region Australia regards as important to its own well-being. And Wen's visit to that country had been profitable enough, offering potential billions in uranium sales and other business, and declaring that - as with New Zealand - Beijing wanted to stitch up a free trade agreement within two years.

But Canberra is worried by the giant in its backyard. Although Wen may have said China's interest in the South Pacific was strategic rather than expedient, Australia regards the use of money to buy friends by both Beijing and rival Taiwan as a potential timebomb that could explode by promoting instability and corruption.

While urging calm and a sense of proportion - Japan, for example, remains the Pacific's biggest aid donor - distinguished Australian-born Harvard China scholar Professor Ross Terrill warns that Beijing's drive for friends, influence and wealth could cloud Canberra's future in its immediate region.

"Chinese fishing, investment and tourism in the South Pacific build on a foundation first established in 1970s rivalry with the Soviet Union and developed in competition with Taiwan for diplomatic recognition from pint-sized, hands-extended island states," Terrill wrote in an analysis of China's rise for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

"Twenty years hence, China and Australia could be the two powers in the shadows as a tug-of-war goes on in the internal and external policies of Papua New Guinea and other South Pacific states."

China and its emerging global role are already sufficiently taxing. So far Canberra has not had to make any real choices of allegiance, managing to balance relations with Beijing and the United States, but there are plenty of potential pitfalls. Noted an examination of Australia's relations with China by the Senate foreign affairs, defence and trade committee: "The relationship is not risk-free."

The committee's report, released just before Wen's visit but not widely reported, warned Canberra to steer clear of tensions between the US and China, but advised the Government to encourage Washington to lift its commitment to the region to counter Beijing's growing influence.

At the same time, the committee expressed concerns about US attempts to contain China, at tensions over Taiwan, and difficulties between China and Japan, another of Australia's key allies and trading partners.

Much closer to home was Beijing's growing clout in the South Pacific, and the vulnerability of island states to "financial influence and corruption".

The committee on one hand wants to ensure that rival aid from China and Taiwan is used according to international development guidelines - rather than to buy allegiance - and on the other wants to ensure Canberra beefs up its own presence and influence.

Australian prime ministers, the committee said, should make sure they place the highest priority on attending all meetings of the Pacific Forum.

At the heart of Canberra's concern is the amount of money pouring into the Islands, much without the strings normally attached to aid.

"Among some Pacific Island nations, competition between China and Taiwan for diplomatic recognition has, on occasion, appeared to take on the characteristics of a bidding war."

So far, Beijing has been winning. Since establishing formal relations with Fiji and Samoa in 1975, China has brought Papua New Guinea, the Cook Islands, Vanuatu, the Federated States of Micronesia and Tonga on side.

Taiwan has lured Kiribati and Nauru away from Beijing and in addition successfully courted the Marshall Islands, Palau, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu. All were excluded from Wen's recent generosity.

Wen's Fijian visit, the first by a Chinese Premier, was in itself an indicator of how seriously his nation plays this game. The committee noted that the leaders of tiny Pacific states are received in Beijing with lavish receptions. The Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, Dr Robert Woonton, for example, was "speechless" when he arrived in 2004 to be greeted by Wen at the Great Hall of the People, a 19-gun salute, and the flags of his country circling Tiananmen Square .

University of the South Pacific emeritus Professor Ron Crocombe told ABC radio that China was "heading straight for the jugular" in the region.

In Washington, a congressional committee noted that the head of a Pacific state of less than 500,000 people received the same treatment as the late President Richard Nixon.

And the money flows. Before Wen's Fijian visit, the Australian Foreign Affairs and Trade Departments estimated that Chinese aid to the South Pacific could be as much as A$300 million ( $357.78 million) a year.

Much of this was high-profile projects that stamped Beijing's presence: a parliamentary complex in Vanuatu, government offices in Samoa, a sports stadium for the 2003 South Pacific Games in Fiji, VIP car fleets for states hosting the Pacific Islands Forum, and a courthouse and police headquarters in the Cook Islands.

Australia worries that the payoff for choosing one side or the other could rebound across the region. Evidence given to the committee warned that the battle for influence between China and Taiwan further destabilised already weak and unstable governments, and fed endemic corruption. In 1998, PNG had tried to win A$3 billion ($3.57 billion) from Taiwan by promising to dump China.

Australian National University emeritus Professor Helen Hughes told the committee that in a region where corruption was now so entrenched that even large scandals scarcely merited a day's attention, China and Taiwan had made matters worse by engaging in chequebook diplomacy.

The Foreign Affairs Department was equally concerned: "We see chequebook diplomacy as directly undermining the efforts [to improve living standards, good government and political stability] that we have made over many years - particularly the efforts that we have intensified in recent times."

Strategic issues also concern Canberra, including the growth of Chinese investment in important resources, such as fishing, and the potential for a military presence.

Despite Chinese denials, speculation continues that a space telemetry tracking station on Kiritbati's Tarawa atoll could be used to monitor US missile tests or become part of a future Chinese space warfare effort.

For Australia, the Pacific is becoming a Chinese puzzle.

Paran Balakrishnan: India is 'shining' for far too few

Could things get rosier? It's barely two months since Mumbai's stockbrokers pulled out the champagne to toast the stock exchange index, the Sensex, crossing into magical five-figure territory. But if anyone thought the Sensex would pause for breath after shooting past 10,000, they were way off the mark and are probably now counting their losses.

A tidal wave of money is still pouring in from foreign funds that have suddenly discovered India and which are rushing to reverse their earlier neglect of the subcontinent. So the market's moving like greased lightning and closed last week at 11,589. It moved from 11,000 to Friday's figure in just 11 trading sessions.

On an entirely different stage, the bold and beautiful of India's modelling world were sashaying down the ramp for the Wills India Fashion Week in Delhi. One week earlier, similar scenes had played out in Mumbai, where the fashion scene was pepped up by the presence of the country's top movie stars.

Wherever you look, India's middle class is having a rollicking time. The markets are booming and so are sales of everything from mobile phones to cars and two-wheelers.

Look at it another way and the world has discovered India: French President Jacques Chirac breezed in and out of town, followed by US President George W. Bush and Australia's John Howard. There was even a touch of royalty when the King of Saudi Arabia was the chief guest at the country's annual Republic Day Parade. Traditionally, India and Saudi Arabia have not been diplomatic buddies.

Simultaneously, the hedge funds and other money men have been pouring cash into the country's markets. Analysts, who once barely gave the subcontinent a second glance, now often talk about the rise of China and India in the same breath.

So, everything should be hunky-dory, right? Not quite. For the middle classes, it's champagne season. For the poor - well, the poor are still poor. And in some parts of India a US dollar a day is still a lot of money.

It was this cruel dichotomy that led Pakistani columnist Ayaz Amir to pass a caustic verdict (on India and Pakistan): "Scanning TV or newspaper ads can lend itself to the same optical illusion that has had India in its thrall since the onset of economic liberalisation: the prosperity of the few seeming to be the prosperity of the many.

"In Delhi, you can hurtle between two time zones; riches to poverty in the time it takes to drive from one part of the city to another."

Amir is right in more ways than one. This is, of course, a country of extraordinary extremes. At one level, there's a fast-growing middle class that could be anywhere between 100 million to 500 million strong. OK, there's a big gap between those two figures, but Indian statistics are notoriously unreliable. Also, remember that anyone who earns about US$200 a month is reckoned to be middle class. Keep that figure in mind and you'll understand why low-priced goods and services can be a winner in this country.

But there's another more dismal side to the India story. About 25 per cent of the population still lives in dire poverty, getting by on slightly over one US dollar a day. And, as Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen recently pointed out, there are other forms of deprivation: more than 40 per cent of the population is still illiterate.

That's not very different from sub-Saharan Africa. But it should be pointed out that most extreme poverty is concentrated in states like Bihar and Orissa and that the other parts of the country have moved ahead.

The mix of extreme poverty and sudden middle-class affluence presents a rare political dilemma for India's politicians. When former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called an election in 2004 he was mesmerised by the growth-rate figures and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) went to the polls with the upbeat slogan "India Shining". The result was an unmitigated disaster and the BJP was turfed out of office because it had got the political mood entirely wrong.

The Congress coalition that now rules in New Delhi is determined not to make the same mistake, so it's trying to perform an uneasy tightrope act. At one level, it wants to be a reformist government and push ahead with opening the country's economy. It has been trying, for instance, to open the country's retail sector to foreign investors such as Wal-Mart and Tesco, which are waiting eagerly for the chance to to launch their retail behemoths in the country.

At another level, Congress has poured money into rural development schemes like never before. It has, for instance, put billions into a scheme that guarantees 100 days of employment to one person in every rural household. Money is also being channelled into schemes to improve infrastructure in the countryside.

Inevitably in a country like India, it's tough to ensure that such projects work. One calculation found only three rupees in every 10 spent on rural development reach the people they are intended for. The rest vanishes into the pockets of corrupt officials and small businessmen. It should, of course, be said that the Government's finances have improved recently and it has, therefore, more money to fling at rural schemes and subsidies.

Also, that populism can be effective at times. Take for instance, Tamil Nadu's midday meals scheme. Everyone heaped scorn on the project when it was introduced in the 90s, but the promise of a free lunch ensured that poor children went to school and stayed there.

Congress has tried to project its pro-poor image in other ways. Party president Sonia Gandhi made herself the chief of an organisation called the National Advisory Council and gathered a clutch of rural economists and NGOs around her for advice on how to spread prosperity to the rural areas. (She has, as a result, fallen foul of the Indian constitution which says that parliamentarians mustn't hold outside offices of profit.) The country's top economists, however, worry loudly that Congress is throwing good money after bad and that rural subsidies are simply bad economics.

Does Congress have any other new ideas on how to spread affluence? Sadly, even though Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is a top economist, there's no sign of radical or innovative thinking at the top. The bright side is that the poverty is concentrated in pockets and that may make it easier to tackle. And, while India is an emerging economic superpower, its act still needs a lot of cleaning up.

* Each week the Business Herald's columnists track the latest developments in the world's two emerging economic superpowers. Paran Balakrishnan is the associate editor of the Telegraph, Kolkata.