China and Iran vie for the subcontinent

Iran’s destabilising influence in Afghanistan is just the tip of a geopolitical iceberg.

It emerged this week that Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, has been accepting "bags of money" from Iran, reportedly as transparent aid to help cover palace expenses. Although Iranian money and weapons for use against Nato forces have been pouring for many years into Herat, in western Afghanistan, the nonchalance of President Karzai's response to Iranian cash in Kabul raised eyebrows in the media.

Perhaps they weren't looking far enough afield. The worry is that Iran has similar designs on Pakistan and that the methods will be the same – drip money into the Pakistani Taliban in a long-term effort to destabilise the state. Even if the tactic doesn't work – and there are strong arguments that it will not – it may make things more complicated.

For one thing, it is not known the extent to which Iranian money is swishing around in Pakistan, though much of it will be linked to drugs. From an Iranian point of view, too, their neighbour to the east may look vulnerable.

India's bulwarks

Sectarian and political violence has reared up over the summer in Karachi – both the starting point of Isaf supply lines and the region's major drugs port. Pakistan is also dealing with the aftermath of catastrophic flooding; much of the agrarian economy is destroyed for this year. And the government is constantly portrayed as weak, even if things may not be quite as bad as they seem.

The fragility of Pakistan comes with caveats, something that the Iranians may not have observed. AP reported in September that there had been 3,600 deaths from extremist Taliban attacks in Pakistan since 2007 – the majority of them chronicled in the western press – a relatively low figure, given Pakistan's population of 175 million. In Karachi this year alone, the city's sectarian and political violence has claimed 1,100 lives.

However, the country is resilient. David Pilling wrote perceptively last week in the Financial Times (registration required) that it's a country that refuses to fail. It is unlikely that Iran will be able to further their ambitions for aggrandisement this year or next. But, as with China, which has invested $248m in Balochistan's Gwadar port to protect its oil and gas supply routes in central Asia, the Iranians are in situ.

The concern is that, over the next decade, they will continue to stay there and that the western and eastern regions of the subcontinent – India's bulwarks – will find themselves under pressure.

Reversing the hostility of decades, India began negotiating with Bangladesh in 2009 to wrest the country out of China's insistent clutches. Delhi cannot budge on Kashmir, of which Arundhati Roy spoke bitterly this week, not because it fears Pakistan, but because it has long-term territorial concerns about China.

The building of an empire

Kashmir is India's land corridor to the borderlands of the Himalayas and there are four disputed areas, three of which border Tibet. The fourth, Arunachal Pradesh in the north-east, next door to Bhutan, is claimed by China. India's state security headache prima inter alia is the Maoist/Naxalite rebellion in the north-east, which quite possibly receives funding from Beijing.

Historically, the Persians and the Mongol Chinese have been at it before, because the subcontinent is fertile, and has abundant land as well as the advantage of prosperous seaports. The ancient tribal and Dravidian people of the subcontinent had to put up with wave after wave of Arya peoples from central Asia over 3,000 years ago. Colin Thubron in the Lost Heart of Asia states – wrongly, I think – that five million died in India as a result of Tamerlane's incursions from 1398.

At the start of the 16th century, Babur, the quasi-Persian prince from Transoxiana, began his progress into the rich and properous lands of northern India which heralded the Moghul empire.

The subcontinent has a habit in the past of splintering under outside pressure. However, this time, in the 21st century, if Pakistan, India and Bangladesh can recognise the external threats, they might see that their future is bound up with each other.

Catriona Luke is a freelance writer and editor.

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Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency - can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.

 

There have been countless jokes about US President Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing him to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’ tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “H.R. 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely to actually achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice Congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well-known - long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the Epa where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes H.R. 861 implausible?

Well, the 10-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the Epa. In the event that the Epa was abolished, all of these laws – from the 1946 Atomic Energy Act to the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trum appointed to the helm of the Epa, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the Epa 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggests that most Americans would be also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the Epa, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the Epa and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, and this Friday, Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the Epa’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes – such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the webpage of the Epa's Office of Science and Technology, which saw all references to “science-based” work removed, in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the Epa's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He was led to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.

 

Rather than outright closure of the Epa, its influence and funding are being leached away. H.R. 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’ Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the Epa’s landscape. With Pruitt as Epa Administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” Epa and National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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