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Countering supremacy: Johor Sultan battles Muslim equivalent of Islamophobia

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, the sovereign of the Malaysian state of Johor, does not mince his words. His repeated verbal assaults on Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism that traces its roots to Saudi-inspired puritan interpretations of the faith constitute an anti-dote to supremacist attitudes in parts of the Islamic world that rival rising Islamophobia in the West.

Sultan Ibrahim’s statements are a response to a series of incidents in Johor and elsewhere in Malaysia. They also take on Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s use of Islamization as a tool to bolster his standing in the wake of a multi-billion-dollar corruption scandal that is under investigation in several countries and in advance of possible early elections.

The sultan’s statements are equally applicable to other countries like Pakistan where the government is seeking to convince the United States that it is backing away from support of Islamic militants that has changed the social fabric of large parts of the country. Replace the word Muslims with Westerners or Christians and Sultan Ibrahim’s remarks are equally valid for Western countries.

The sultan’s campaign contrasts starkly with moves in the West to curb expressions of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism and paint Muslims with a broad brush as in the case of US President Donald J. Trump’s ban on travel to the US from several Muslim countries. In Austria, a anti-immigrant politician is set to become Austria’s next chancellor after winning elections on Sunday. Switzerland has scheduled a referendum on whether to follow France and Belgium’s banning of the ultra-conservative Muslim face veil.

Addressing graduates of the Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia University in Johor, Sultan Ibrahim charged that recent declarations by two launderette operators, one in Johor and one in the Malaysian state of Perlis, that they would only service Muslim customers would lead to what amounts to apartheid-like segregation. The next step, he said, would be separate banknotes and hotel pillows for Muslims and non-Muslims to shield Muslims from touching items that were impure because they had been used by non-Muslims. The launderette orders were persuaded by authorities to rescind their decision.

“If everything is to be prohibited, we might as well live alone in the cave and not live in society,” Sultan Ibrahim said, taking to task Zamihan Mat Zin, an Islamic scholar on the payroll of the federal government’s Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim), who defended the launderette owners and declared non-Muslims unhygienic.

“When banknotes may have been held by a pork seller or alcohol seller, does the government have to make Muslims-only money? What about public seats where a stray dog could have urinated or pillows and blankets in a hotel which could have come in contact with unclean elements? It would be endless,” Sultan Ibrahim said.

The sultan’s remarks take on added significance with minorities, Muslim and non-Muslim, on the defensive not only in Malaysia but elsewhere in the Muslim world, and, by the same token with Muslims in the West increasingly being in the firing line. They also have increased relevance as the world grapples with Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingya. The plight of the Rohingya is rooted in virulently nationalist strands of Buddhism and threatens to create fertile soil for jihadists at a time that Southeast Asia is struggling to limit the fallout of the territorial defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Signs of creeping ultra-conservatism are evident across the Muslim world with crackdowns on LGBT in Egypt, Azerbaijan and Indonesia, the launch of a mobile dating app for polygamists in Indonesia where polygamy is legal, a rising number of instances of domestic violence in Malaysia and Indonesia, and the introduction of a strict interpretation of Sharia law in Brunei in 2014 that bars women from multiple activities, including playing soccer.

Pakistan earlier this month sentenced to death three members of its persecuted Ahmadi sect for blasphemy. The three were accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammed under Pakistan’s draconic anti-blasphemy laws by tearing down posters that allegedly included anti-Ahmadi slogans.

Ahmadis, a sect widely viewed as heretics by conservative Muslims, were banned from identifying themselves as Muslims or their houses of worship as mosques under a 1974 constitutional amendment that was inspired by Saudi Arabia. The blasphemy law was amended ten years later to include such references by Ahmadis.

Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative attitudes have taken root in Pakistan because of long-standing Saudi influence, the fallout of Saudi and US backing in the 1980s of Islamic militants fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, Pakistani support for militants since as proxies in covert wars against India and Afghanistan, and the government’s repeated opportunistic use of religion.

Recent warnings by Mr. Trump and other senior US officials as well as a statement by the leaders of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) that included Xi Jingping, Pakistan’s closest ally, that Pakistani support for militants constituted a threat to regional security, was a wake-up call for Islamabad. Pakistan’s electoral commission this month rejected an application by a front for one of the militant groups to establish a political party while Pakistani troops liberated an American-Canadian family that had been held hostage by the Haqqani network for five years.

Sultan Ibrahim, who ordered his Islamic affairs department to break off relations with Jakim, the federal government’s religious organ, was joined by other rulers of Malaysian states as well as the Muslim Chinese Association (MCA), a constituent member of Mr. Razak’s ruling Barisan Nasional Party, that rejected a statement by a deputy minister linking defense of Islam to the Malaysian constitution.

In a rare intervention into the country’s public affairs, the rulers said they were concerned that unity and harmony in Malaysia was being eroded as the country confronted controversial issues.

“In recent weeks, the actions of certain individuals have gone beyond all acceptable standards of decency, putting at risk the harmony that currently exists within our multi-religious and multi-ethnic society. The Rulers are of the opinion that the damaging implications of such actions are more severe when they are erroneously associated with or committed in the name of Islam. As a religion that encourages its followers to be respectful, moderate, and inclusive, the reputation of Islam must not ever be tainted by the divisive actions of certain groups or individuals,” the rulers said in a statement.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Southeast Asia

Explaining Gendered Wartime Violence: Rohingya Ethnic Cleansing

Devika Khandelwal

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Image source: Al-Jazeera

The United Nations described Rohingyas as ‘amongst the most persecuted minority groups in the world.’ News reports and refugee testimonies have confirmed that the plight of Muslims in Rakhine State of Myanmar is atrocious. The humanitarian crisis taking place in the Rakhine state has led to the death of an appalling number of Rohingya’s Muslims. It has been reported, that nearly 500,000 people have fled destruction of their livelihood and, are currently living in refugee camps in Bangladesh. The UN reports suggest that Rohingyas have faced “killings, torture, rape and arson”, by Burmese troops. It has been categorised as a ‘textbook case of ethnic cleansing’ of Muslims in Myanmar.

Rohingya Muslims represent the largest percentage of Muslims in Myanmar, and the majority lived in Rakhine state before the violence broke out. Myanmar is predominantly a Buddhist country which has for decades denied Muslims citizenship, they have been subjected to brutal government and police violence, and their identity has been decreased to that of an ‘illegal immigrant.’ On the 25th of August, 2017 the Rohingya militant army launched a deadly attack on the Muslims which has culminated into a systematic case of ethnic violence, turning into ethnic cleansing. They have slowly, but successfully forced majority of the Muslims to flee the country, resulting in one of the deadliest case of violence in the 21st century.

Within this Muslim minority exists another kind of minority, ‘Rohingya Women’ who have been subjected to sexual violence and rape by the army militants. It has been reported that tens of thousands of young girls and women of the Muslim community have been sexually violated and raped by the army militants In the report prepared for the UN Commission on Human Rights, Gay J. McDougall defined wartime rape as “a deliberate and strategic decision on the part of combatants to intimidate and destroy ‘the enemy’ as a whole by raping and enslaving women who are identified as members of the opposition group.” However, wartime rape is not a new phenomenon. Many historical and anthropological researchers have provided us with evidence that rape during war can be traced back to earlier wars. It was reported that during the Second World War, the city of Berlin witnessed extremely high levels of rape and sexual violence against women by the Soviet forces. It has been estimated that around 900,000 women were raped and violated during the war.The infamous ‘Rape of Nanking’ is another case where Japanese soldiers reportedly raped an estimated 20,000 to 80,000 women in the city of Nanjing, China in 1937.

According to the Human Rights Watch report titled ‘All of My Body was in Pain: Sexual Violence against Rohingya Women and Girls in Burma’, women and girls are brutally being raped and sexually violated, humiliated, beaten up and even killed by the Burmese militants. They also suffer from the ordeal of seeing their children, parents or partners being murdered in front of them. The Burmese militant army is using systematic rape as a weapon of war in the massacre of the Rohingyas – using women to be the easy target, and thereby making the Rohingya crisis a grave gender concern. Priyanka Motaparthy, a senior researcher in the Emergencies division of the Human Rights Watch, mentions in a Human Rights Watch report, “These horrific attacks on Rohingya women and girls by security forces add a new and brutal chapter to the Burmese military’s long and sickening history of sexual violence against women.”

It is believed that sexual violence and rape is systematically used against women during wartime due multiple reasons. In addition to women being ‘easy targets’, they are subjected to this ordeal in order to break down the reproductive cycle of an ethnicity, which thereby can result in eliminating that ethnic population altogether. It is also used to decrease or break down the morale of their enemy population, who are responsible for securing their women and girls, thus weakening their opponents. Therefore, the connecting factor between ‘gender based violence’ and ‘wartime’ are the underlying patriarchal values that persists in societies and dictates their culture. Within this structure, it is often assumed that a woman’s honor resides in her reproductive system, violating her reproductive system is seen as a way of stripping her honor, subjecting her to humiliation and furthermore gaining ‘power.’ It is a way of systematically destroying a community as a whole.

This is not the first time the world is witnessing gender based violence. However, the silence on the issue and lack of action by international authorities such as the United Nations is alarming. Urgent and crucial steps need to be taken by the Burmese government along with other International Organizations to bring relief to these women and girls. There is also an urgent need to implement stringent policies and necessary actions must be taken against people who use of sexual violence during wartime. However, the most urgent need of the hour is to overthrow patriarchal values from societies all across the world. Even though this is optimistic, it is important to instill a sense of equality between men and women, which in turn could help in eliminating the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

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Southeast Asia

Malaysian-Saudi relations: A lesson in the pitfalls of authoritarianism and autocracy

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Embattled former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak was the main loser in last month’s election upset that returned Mahathir Mohamad to power as his country’s anti-corruption crusader. Yet, Mr. Razak is not the only one who may be paying the price for allegedly non-transparent and unaccountable governance.

So is Saudi Arabia with a Saudi company having played a key role in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal in which Mr. Razak is suspected to have overseen the siphoning off of at least US$4.5 billion and the Saudi government seemingly having gone out of its way to provide him political cover.

While attention has focussed largely on the re-opening of the investigation of Mr. Razak and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, both of whom have been banned from travel abroad and have seen their homes raided by law enforcement, Saudi Arabia has not escaped policymakers’ consideration. Mr. Razak has denied all allegations of wrongdoing.

The geopolitical fallout of the scandal is becoming increasingly evident. Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu suggested this week that Malaysia was re-evaluating the presence of Malaysian troops in Saudi Arabia, dispatched to the kingdom as part of the 41-nation, Saudi-sponsored Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC).

“The ATM (Malaysian Armed Forces) presence in Saudi Arabia has indirectly mired Malaysia in the Middle East conflict… The government will make a decision on the matter in the near future after a re-evaluation has been completed,” said Mr. Sabu, who is known for his critical view of Saudi Arabia.

In a commentary published late last year that suggests a potential Malaysian re-alignment of its Middle Eastern relationships, Mr. Sabu noted that Saudi wrath has been directed “oddly, (at) Turkey, Qatar, and Iran…three countries that have undertaken some modicum of political and economic reforms. Instead of encouraging all sides to work together, Saudi Arabia has gone on an offensive in Yemen, too. Therein the danger posed to Malaysia: if Malaysia is too close to Saudi Arabia, Putrajaya would be asked to choose a side.”

Putrajaya, a city south of Kuala Lumpur, is home to the prime minister’s residence.

Mr. Sabu went on to say that “Malaysia should not be too close to a country whose internal politics are getting toxic… For the lack of a better word, Saudi Arabia is a cesspool of constant rivalry among the princes. By this token, it is also a vortex that could suck any country into its black hole if one is not careful. Indeed, Saudi Arabia is governed by hyper-orthodox Salafi or Wahhabi ideology, where Islam is taken in a literal form. Yet true Islam requires understanding Islam, not merely in its Quranic form, but Quranic spirit.”

Since coming to office, Mr. Sabu has said that he was also reviewing plans for a Saudi-funded anti-terrorism centre, the King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP), which was allocated 16 hectares of land in Putrajaya by the Razak government. Mr. Sabu was echoing statements by Mr. Mahathir before the election.

Compounding potential strains in relations with Saudi Arabia, Seri Mohd Shukri Abdull, Mr. Mahathir’s newly appointed anti-corruption czar, who resigned from the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) in 2016 as a result of pressure to drop plans to indict Mr. Razak, noted that “we have had difficulties dealing with Arab countries (such as)…Saudi Arabia…”

The investigation is likely to revisit 1MDB relationship’s with Saudi energy company PetroSaudi International Ltd, owned by Saudi businessman Tarek Essam Ahmad Obaid as well as prominent members of the kingdom’s ruling family who allegedly funded Mr. Razak.

It will not have been lost on Saudi Arabia that Mr. Mahathir met with former PetroSaudi executive and whistle blower Xavier Andre Justo less than two weeks after his election victory.

A three-part BBC documentary, The House of Saud: A Family at War, suggested that Mr. Razak had worked with Prince Turki bin Abdullah, the son of former Saudi King Abdullah, to syphon off funds from 1MDB.

Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir came to Mr. Razak’s rescue in 2016 by declaring that US$681 million transferred into the prime minister’s personal bank account was a “genuine donation with nothing expected in return.”

The Malaysian election as well as seeming Saudi complicity in the corruption scandal that toppled Mr. Razak has global implications, particularly for the United States and China, global powers who see support of autocratic and/or corrupt regimes as the best guarantee to maintain stability.

It is a lesson that initially was apparent in the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

The rollback of the achievements of most of those revolts backed by autocratic leaders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates bent on reshaping the Middle East and North Africa in their mould has contributed to the mayhem, violence and brutal repression engulfing the region.

In addition, autocratic rule has failed to squash widespread economic and social discontent. Middle Eastern states, including Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon Iran, and most recently Jordan have witnessed  protests against rising prices, cuts in public spending and corruption.

“The public dissatisfaction, bubbling up in several countries, is a reminder that even more urgent action is needed,” warned Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Elections, if held at all, more often than not fail to serve as a corrective in the Middle East and North Africa because they are engineered rather than a free and fair reflection of popular will. Elections in countries like Iraq and Lebanon serve as exceptions that confirm the rule while Iran represents a hybrid.

As a result, street protests, militancy and violence are often the only options available to those seeking change.

Against that backdrop, Malaysia stands out as an example of change that does not jeopardize stability. It is but the latest example of Southeast Asian nations having led the way in producing relatively peaceful political transitions starting with the 1986 popular revolt in the Philippines, the 1998 toppling of Suharto in Indonesia, and Myanmar’s 2010 transition away from military dictatorship.

This is true even if Southeast Asia also demonstrates that political transition is a decades-long process that marches to the tune of Vladimir Lenin’s principle of two steps forward, one step backwards as it witnesses a backslide with the rise in the Philippines of President Rodrigo Duterte’s authoritarianism, stepped up jihadist activity, the 2014 military coup in Thailand, increasingly autocratic rule in Cambodia, the rise of conservatism and intolerance in Indonesia, and the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

If anything, Malaysia constitutes an anti-dote.

“Malaysia’s institutions proved more resilient…and descent into authoritarianism has been averted – offering a lesson not only to aspiring dictators, but to those in the United States who argue that propping up corrupt leaders is in U.S. interests,” said Alex Helan, a security and anti-corruption consultant.

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Indonesian Muslim leader signals global shifts in meetings with Pence and Netanyahu

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Yahya Staquf, a diminutive, soft-spoken leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim movement, and Indonesian president Joko Widodo’s advisor on religious affairs, has held a series of meetings in recent weeks that reflect the Muslim world’s shifting attitudes towards Israel and the Palestinians and a re-alignment of socially conservative Muslim and Christian interests.

Just this month, Mr. Staquf, a staunch advocate of inter-faith dialogue and religious tolerance, met in Washington with Vice President Mike Pence, a devout evangelist Catholic who has described himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order,” and in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.

Messrs. Pence and Staquf were joined by Reverend Johnnie Moore, an evangelist who in May was appointed by US President Donald J. Trump as a member of the board of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Mr. Staquf’s discussions would likely raise eyebrows at any given moment.

But they take on added significance because they came in the wake of Mr. Trump’s controversial recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, stepped up US support for Israel in United Nations bodies, and in advance of a whirlwind visit to the Middle East by US peace negotiators Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestine Authority has refused to engage with the Trump administration since the US recognition of Jerusalem and Palestinian officials were unlikely to meet with Messrs. Kushner and Greenblatt during their Middle East tour that focused on a draft US plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Details of the plan, described by Mr. Trump as the ‘deal of the century,’ remain under wrap, but Palestinians fear that it will be heavily geared towards supporting Israeli negotiating positions.

That fear has been reinforced by the Trump administration’s fiery support of Israel in the UN. The United States this month withdrew from the United Nations Human Rights Council, citing, among other reasons, the council’s repeated criticism of Israel.

Whether by design or default, Mr. Staquf’s meetings appeared to reinforce efforts by close US allies like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt to stifle opposition to Mr. Trump’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Turkey has been in the forefront of condemnation of US policy that resonates in Muslim public opinion, particularly in Asia.

Frustration with US and Israeli policies has undermined popular Palestinian support for a two-state solution that envisions the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, has facilitated weeks of protests along the border between Gaza and Israel in support of the Palestinian right to return to lands within Israel’s boundaries prior to the 1967 Middle East war during which Israel captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights.

Israel has since annexed East Jerusalem and withdrawn from Gaza, which it blockades together with Egypt in a bid to undermine Hamas’s rule.

At least 142 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces since the protests erupted in late March and some 13,000 wounded.

Mr. Netanyahu trumpeted the political significance of his meeting with Mr. Staquf in a statement following their encounter.

“Muslim states are becoming closer to Israel because of the common struggle against the Iranian regime and because of Israeli technology. … The prime minister hopes that there will be progress in our relationship with Indonesia, too,” Mr. Netanyahu’s office said.

Indonesia and Israel do not maintain diplomatic relations but do not stop their nationals and officials from travelling between the two countries. Mr. Staquf has insisted that he was visiting Israel in his private capacity rather than as an advisor to the Indonesian president.

Indonesia recently revoked Israeli tourist visas in protest against Israel’s hard-handed tactics in Gaza. In response, Israel has threatened to ban tourist visas for Indonesians. Some 30,000 Indonesians, mostly Christian pilgrims, obtain visas to visit Israel each year.

Indonesia in May exempted Palestinian imports from custom duties in a bid to support the Palestinian economy.

Mr. Staquf insisted that his visit to Israel at the invitation of the American Jewish Congress was intended to promote Palestinian independence. “I stand here for Palestine. I stand here on the basis that we all have to honour Palestine’s sovereignty as a free country,” he said in a statement posted on his organization’s website.

Nonetheless, Mr. Staquf did not meet Palestine Authority officials during his visit. Osama al-Qawasmi, a spokesman for Mr. Abbas’ Al Fatah group, charged that his visit was “a crime against Jerusalem, against the Palestinians and Muslims in the world, and constitutes support for the criminal Israeli occupier against our fighting and resolute people.”

Mr. Staquf was the second NU leader to visit Israel in the past two decades. Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid travelled several times to Israel before and after his presidency but not while he was Indonesia’s head of state.

Muslim leaders, many of which have long reconciled themselves to recognition of the State of Israel’s existence, have largely been reluctant to publicly engage with Israeli officials as opposed to non-Israeli Jews as long as Israel and Palestine have not made substantial progress towards peace.

Mr. Staquf like Mr. Wahid before him broke ranks by travelling to Israel, a move that sparked criticism and condemnation on Indonesian social media and from some members of parliament.

While the criticism has focussed on Mr. Staquf’s visit to Israel rather than his meeting with Messrs. Pence and Moore, it is also rooted in widespread perceptions of evangelists as purveyors of rising Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment.

Lost in that criticism is the fact that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is being hailed by some evangelists as heralding a new era with his projection of greater religious openness in the kingdom and his unprecedented statement that both Palestinians and Israelis “have the right” to have their own land.

“You know I couldn’t believe my ears actually when I was watching the news report where the crown prince of Saudi Arabia said directly, verbatim, He said this kingdom will become a kingdom for all religions. I had to watch it again and he was crystal, crystal clear.

You know as evangelicals this is a new day for us in the Middle East. Evangelicals are the baby Christians in the region… What we’re seeing is a new openness to what evangelicalism is, which I think is a move of the Holy Spirit.” Mr Moore said.

Mr. Staquf projected his visit to Israel as promoting the concept of rahma or compassion and mercy as the basis for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the forging of relations between Israel and the Muslim world.

In practice, by design or by default, it supports US and Saudi efforts to impose their will on the Palestinians and the larger Middle East that potentially could produce as many problems as they offer solutions.

In doing so, it pays tribute to Prince Mohammed’s ability to project himself as an agent of change in Saudi Arabia even if the precise contours of his vision have yet to emerge.

In a twist of irony, it is a tribute by the leader of a movement that was founded almost a century ago in opposition to Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim worldview that long shaped Saudi Arabia and that Prince Mohammed is seen as disavowing.

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