In a rare challenging of Chinese commercial terms that underlie the country’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative, Pakistan and Nepal have withdrawn from two dam-building deals. The withdrawal coincides with mounting questions in Pakistan, a crown jewel in Chinese geo-strategic ambition, about what some see as a neo-colonial effort to extract the country’s resources.
The withdrawals and questioning call into question China’s economics-centred approach to geopolitics based on the long-standing win-win principle of Chinese policy, the notion that all parties benefit from Chinese investment and largesse.
Critics have charged that the principle boils down to China wins twice, a notion that is supported by Chinese plans for Pakistan’s agricultural sector; the extraction of Pakistani onyx, granite, and black gold marble; the disagreement over the dams; and the debt traps that forced countries like Sri Lanka to surrender control of key assets.
Pakistan and Nepal announced their withdrawals last week in separate statements. Pakistani Water and Power Development Authority chairman Muzammil Hussain charged that “Chinese conditions for financing the Diamer-Bhasha Dam were not doable and against our interests.” China and Pakistan were also at odds over ownership of the $14 billion, 4,500 megawatts (MW)-hydropower project on the Indus River in the country’s problematic region of Gilgit-Baltistan near disputed Kashmir.
Nepal’s Deputy Prime Minister and Energy Minister Kamal Thapa announced his government’s decision to scrap a US$2.5 billion deal with China’s Gezhouba Group to build a hydroelectric project on the Budhi Gandaki River in the west of the country two days before the Pakistani decision. With India’s National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) waiting in the wings and expectations that the incumbent, Nepali Congress (NC) will be returned to power in elections scheduled for November 26 and December 7, the project plays into Eurasia’s Great Game for regional influence.
The Diamer-Bhasha project was intended to be part of the Chine Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key node on the Belt and Road, that with planned investments into infrastructure, including the port of Gwadar in the volatile province of Balochistan; energy, telecommunications and information technology, of more than $50 billion, constitutes China’s largest financial commitment to any one country.
The Pakistani withdrawal takes on added significance because it was included in CPEC after the government had failed to secure funding from international institutions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) because of Indian objections that it was in disputed territory. The government has broken ground on the project five times in the past 15 years. Mr. Hussain said that the government now has a five-year funding plan for the project that would be completed in 2026.
Chinese analysts suggest that the Pakistani and Nepalese withdrawals could set a precedent.
“It will not be a big surprise if similar problems happen in China’s future overseas projects. And that would not change the big picture. There is a common misinterpretation internationally that the Belt and Road is something China would want to push forwards at all cost. But in fact, all projects are commercial so they have to be justifiable economically, and agreed mutually,” said Zhao Gancheng, a South Asia expert at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.
China is likely to encounter greater resistance not only on its financial terms, but also regarding assessments of what economic benefit investment target countries can expect.
A State Bank of Pakistan study concluded that exports of marble to China, Pakistan’s foremost rough-hewn, freshly-excavated marble export market, and the re-export to Pakistan of Pakistani semi-processed marble was “hurting Pakistan’s marble industry to a significant extent.”
Pakistani marble exporter and retailer Shakil Khan told Asia Times that “the Chinese buyers go for the square slabs, while the local quarrymen tend to excavate oval-shaped blocks which reduce to smaller bits” and are only of interest to the local Pakistani handicrafts and tile market. The Chinese approach discriminates against mines with cracked marble.
“The Chinese pick only the rare and quality stuff like onyx, black gold marble and high-quality granite from the market. Local processing units don’t have the high-tech processing equipment here to treat these costly marble products,” added Zahid Shinwari, president of the Sarhad Chamber of Commerce & Industry (SCCI), in Peshawar.
The Pakistani marble industry’s experience strokes with the overall suggestion of the leaked long-term plan for CPEC that projects risks of economic domination, the creation of a surveillance state, and would allow China to shape Pakistan’s media landscape. It projected an approach that has already sparked popular resistance and setbacks in countries and regions such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Balochistan.
The plan envisioned Chinese state-owned companies leasing thousands of hectares of Pakistani agricultural land to set up “demonstration projects” in areas ranging from seed varieties to irrigation technology. The Chinese companies would be offered “free capital and loans” from various Chinese ministries as well as the China Development Bank.
Effectively turning Pakistan into a raw materials supplier rather than an added-value producer, a prerequisite for a sustainable textiles industry, the plan sees the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps in China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang, as the vehicle for the introduction of mechanization as well as new technologies in Pakistani livestock breeding, development of hybrid varieties, and precision irrigation. Added value would be produced in Xinjiang as part of China’s bid to quell ethnic unrest among the Uighur population.
The plan envisaged the Pakistani textile sector as a supplier of materials such as yarn and coarse cloth to textile manufacturers in Xinjiang. “China can make the most of the Pakistani market in cheap raw materials to develop the textiles & garments industry and help soak up surplus labour forces in (Xinjiang’s) Kashgar,” the plan said. Chinese companies would be offered preferential treatment regarding “land, tax, logistics and services” as well as “enterprise income tax, tariff reduction and exemption and sales tax rate” incentives.
Pakistan and Nepal’s withdrawal from the dam projects suggests that for China to secure economic dominance in Eurasia, it will have to ensure that win-win amounts to equitable terms and distribution of benefits among those that need the investment.
“China needs to nurture better understanding of its intentions and visions…to prevent unnecessary suspicions about its geopolitical ambition,” The Jakarta Post said earlier this year in an editorial that acknowledged that “we badly need the huge infrastructure spending that China is bringing.”
China’s Deflating Population: The Economic Marvel in Eclipse?
So China’s population shrank last year. I admit my first instinct was … well, isn’t this a good thing? I mean, during the entire 1960s and 1970s, global discourse misted around how the world population kept growing beyond the finite resources of this world. And how food scarcity and poverty would create a social depression. China, with a population of roughly 1.4 billion people, was specifically a focal point of population reduction strategies. After the widespread catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward, a debilitating social program orchestrated by Mao Zedong in the late 50s, China’s population was on the up and up in the following decade, to the point that the infamous ‘One-Child Policy’ was introduced in the late 70s to inhibit the burden of a growing population – and concomitant poverty. Since then, however, China has dynamically transformed into an economic powerhouse – a factory floor for global manufacturing. And here lies the answer to this population conundrum: Shrinking population in China is a problem now!
According to the data released by the Chinese government last week, China’s population contracted by circa 850,000 people in 2022; with 9.56 million births against 10.41 million deaths, it was the first time in more than half a century that deaths outnumbered births in China. The initial thought would be to blame it on the pandemic. But that would be a blinkered assumption without gauging the stunted birth rate. It was the sixth consecutive year that the number of births fell, down from 10.6 million in 2021, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Many demographers and statisticians warned for years about a population decline on the cards, albeit much later in this decade. This presage was why the government reposed its one-child policy in 2016 and extended the limit to three children in 2021. Local governments offered tax rebates and outright cash handouts to couples having children. The source of anxiety was partly social and partly economic – or maybe socioeconomic is the correct juxtaposition.
China is a rising economic power, the world’s second-largest economy, and the strongest contender to dethrone American supremacy. But in listing all the superlatives, we sometimes forget that China is still a developing economy. Despite its phenomenal evolution from endemic poverty, its average population still earns less than the average earnings in advanced economies. And the shrinking population is a two-pronged issue that could constrict China, like other leading developing economies, into a middle-income trap.
Just by simple inference, we can judge that a declining population is also an aging population. Impressive modernity in China’s healthcare system has led to an increase in life expectancy. Meanwhile, a decades-long hiatus in birth-conducive policies and changed mores of young Chinese couples, often antipathetic to having children altogether, have led to a sharp decline in births. A combination of these factors has invited a conspicuous outcome: Shrinkage in China’s working-age population. In fact, China’s working-age population has been in decline since 2015; according to a government spokesman, it could fall to roughly 700 million (approximately 23%) by 2050. This factor would be particularly problematic for China, which has long been a competitive labor market for manufacturing heavyweights like Apple and Microsoft. But moreover, a bulging elderly population amidst falling tax receipts would pose a challenge to government finances, especially given the comparably underdeveloped social safety net programs in China. Therefore, either taxes ought to be raised sharply or state pensions to old-age dependents would hit the skids – a spartan policy dilemma either way.
We can draw apt comparisons from Japan – the world’s third largest economy – which has notoriously suffered from a lopsided aging population and accompanying anemic economic growth since the asset bubble burst of the 1990s. I mean, China’s real estate market does look like a financial crisis just waiting to happen. But post-boom Japan has tried virtually every bizarre economic strategy – from negative interest rates to yield curve control – yet has failed to spark demand-led inflation. Strangely, however, China has sustained its bustling economy on prohibitive rates of investment rather than consumer demand, which has remained relatively lukewarm due to policymakers’ reluctance to pass the complete scope of economic growth to households. Nonetheless, a contracting labor force would perhaps accelerate the exodus of manufacturing from China unless the government finds alternatives to sustain China’s unrivaled productivity levels.
We could blame China’s ‘zero Covid’ policy for strangling economic growth. It is no surprise that China’s economy grew by a modest 3% in 2022, its slowest rate in nearly four decades, barring 2020. Intermittent lockdowns and pedantic mass testing regimes cast a pall over economic activities. And higher interest rates imposed by the Federal Reserve and other central banks have dampened global demand and diluted appetite for Chinese imports. According to government officials, year-on-year Chinese exports fell by 9.9% in December. While an economic turnaround is widely expected later this year, a falling working-age population; a skyward old-age dependency ratio; and the ongoing trade tussle with the United States could cost China many more decades to supersede the American edge. However, China has been an iridescent success story, an economic miracle of sorts. And therefore, if the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could somehow prioritize economy over national security; social reforms over governmental control; and collaboration over confrontation, I reckon China can again defy the odds and achieve its dream.
Nepal-China Relations and Belt and Road Initiative
China appears to be more “functional” in Nepal recently. A new administration led by leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal has acted on the same pitch initially also. The Rasuwagadhi border crossing, which had been blocked for three years, has been reopened for two-way trade, and the much-anticipated Gyorong-Kathmandu train project’s final survey has also begun as of January 1, 2023. The second phase of the 10-lane ring road project from Kalanki to Chabhil is anticipated to start soon as well. All these accumulatively demonstrate the current nature of friendship between them and the profound Belt and Road Initiative is the key rostrum for the current complexion of the relationship between them. Hence, the trends are indicating a greater form of cooperation even in the regional domain as well.
Meanwhile, China and Nepal have inked a six-point agreement to strengthen bilateral collaboration and exchanges on governance, legislation, and supervisory practices, in line with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). On September 12, 2022, in Kathmandu’s federal parliament building, Agni Prasad Sapkota, Speaker of the Parliament, and Li Zhanshu, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress, signed the agreement. According to the agreement, the nations would exchange information about each other’s legislative, oversight, and governance activities. Five years after BRI’s founding, on May 12, 2017, Nepal formally joined the process. Nine projects – the upgrading of the Rasuwagadhi-Kathmandu road, the construction of the Kimathanka-Hile road, the construction of the road from Dipayal to the Chinese border, the Tokha-Bidur Road, the Galchhi-Rasuwagadhi-Kerung400kv transmission line, the Kerung-Kathmandu rail, the 762MW Tamor Hydroelectricity Project, the 426MW Phuket Karnali were on the to do list. However, more than any other nation, China invested US$188 million in Nepal during the 2020–21 fiscal year. During KP Sharma Oli’s visit to Beijing in 2016, Nepal and China also ratified a transit transport agreement for commerce with other parties.
However, amidst the current global tension and the changing rapport of international politics, China remains as a key investor in Nepal. Besides, the recent activities from the Nepal administration showed a shift in policy domain from the previous regime which in some cases was rigid to Chinese projects. Meanwhile, the BRI becomes more eminent in the strategic, political and economic domain of the status quo. Against such backdrop, the next sections will discuss current trends of the BRI in Nepal.
Nine Projects: Token of Continuation of the Initiative
Nepal put forward nine potential projects to be undertaken under the BRI at the beginning of 2019. These included setting up a technical institution in Nepal, building new highways, tunnels, and hydroelectricity dams, as well as conducting a feasibility assessment for a trans-Himalayan railway that would connect Jilong/Keyrung, a Chinese port of entry, with Kathmandu. This enhanced the significance of the project which will direct to more prosperous China- Nepal relations.
Nepal, the “Pillar”
Hou Yanqi, the Chinese ambassador to Nepal, stated in April 2022 that Nepal was one of the BRI’s most significant pillars and that projects were still moving forward despite the “speed of pragmatic collaboration” slowing down because of the coronavirus pandemic and Nepal’s changing political climate.
Transit Through China: Better Connectivity and Trade
Kathmandu protocol agreement with Beijing, Nepal will import and export goods from a third country through China through Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang and Zhanjiang seaports and land ports of Lanzhou, Lhasa and Shigatse. They will also get the facility of transporting goods through six dedicated transit points of the two countries. It will boost the trade for improved connectivity.
Extended Cooperation in Domains Except for BRI
In addition to the BRI projects, China is currently making significant investments in Nepal’s infrastructure, including ring road expansion, dry ports at the border crossings of Larcha and Syabrubesi, the establishment of China Study Centers, a new international airport in Pokhara, and optical fiber cable connectivity from Kathmandu to the Chinese border.
Energy Exploration: New Domain of Cooperation
China is also looking into the prospect of discovering gas and oil deposits in Nepal and is building a border river crossing at Hilsa, Humla. It will open a new domain of cooperation based on mutual interest.
Poverty Reduction and Generating Newer Income Sources
Currently, roughly six Chinese airlines offer regular flights to Nepal. Nepal has the fastest-growing Chinese tourist industry. Nepal granted China access to choose 16 Himalayan regions that border China to develop as part of a program to fight poverty.
Security: Bringing Peace
Joint military drills between China and Nepal are also a new development in security cooperation. It will bring peace in the region since the image of Nepal is very clean.
Increased Diplomatic Connectivity
The BRI appears to be one of the three priority pillars for the Chinese government’s organizing principles of foreign policy, along with the Global Development Initiatives and the Global Security Initiatives, in terms of developing successful international relations rather than just an economic endeavor. It will bring a fresh start in the diplomatic domain of both countries and the future prospects of ties in the diplomatic arena can be discussed robustly.
No More Landlockedness
Under BRI and the Trans-Himalayan Multi-dimensional Connectivity Network, which will transform Nepal from a landlocked country to a land-linked one, there are multiple road, sea, and corridor networks throughout the world. It will boost the relationship to a great extent while there will be a surge in the arena of export and import.
The extension of the Qingzang railway from Tibet to Nepal and the border with India is among the most significant BRI projects. Three routes are being considered for this railway. The first would connect Shigatse to Kathmandu via Kerung and continue on to Pokhara and Lumbini before reaching the Indian border. The second would run from Shigatse to the Burang border and connect Humla and Darchula districts in Nepal with Pithoragdh, Uttarakhand, while the third would link Shigatse to the Yandong border of Sikkim, India.
As China and India have no trade disputes with one another, India would gain from this project as well after trading through this route. In comparison to other industrialized parts of the world, South Asia could see an increase in commerce and investment if this project is carried out on a win-win basis between China and Nepal.
Additionally, loans are typically provided on commercial terms through the Silk Road Fund and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), both of which are led by China (SRF). Due to project site clearance delays and the nation’s political instability, along with its comparatively short repayment time, Nepal’s big projects have raised concerns that they may not get off the ground.
Besides, three primary issues with China are of particular concern to the Nepalese government. First, instead of commercial loans, the nation favors grants and lenient loans from China. Second, it wants the interest rate and repayment period to be comparable to those of multilateral funding organizations like the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank. Thirdly, it thinks that bid competitions ought to be allowed for the BRI projects. But the Chinese authorities are not responding on the same page.
The Inception of a Recommenced Cooperation
Pradeep Gawali, Foreign Minister in the KP Sharma Oli’s government, said that from the perspective of Nepal, the BRI projects were the way to be connected to the trans-Himalayan multipurpose connectivity network. Nepal had been able to select the nine projects included in the BRI with great success. However, Chinese authority said on December 26 that it looks forward to cooperating with the new government to advance projects under the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, a day after the Maoist party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda was named as Nepal’s new prime minister (BRI). China aims to develop initiatives under the Belt and Road collaboration, according to Mao Ning, the official spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, who congratulated Prachanda on his appointment. Beijing claims that as a longtime ally and neighbor of Nepal, China cherishes Nepali relations very highly. China is prepared to collaborate with the new Nepalese administration to broaden and deepen friendly relations and cooperation on all fronts, pursue high-quality Belt and Road cooperation, strategic cooperative alliance marked by enduring friendship for growth and prosperity new impetus, and bring more benefits to peoples from both sides.
Hence, it is evident that China’s policy toward Nepal is generally stable and uncomplicated, and the two countries’ bilateral relations have been cordial and shaped by Nepal’s strategy of balancing the divergent impact of China and its southern neighbor. Through BRI projects, Nepal could gain better connectivity relations with its northern neighbors, but in order to do so, Nepal must enhance its negotiations with China.
Territorial Rise of China: It’s Impact on International Borders
The rise of China has had a significant impact on the international order and the way countries interact with one another. One of the main areas where this has been felt is in the realm of international borders. China has long had disputes with its neighbours over the demarcation of its borders. In recent years, it has become more assertive in advancing its territorial claims, particularly in the South China Sea. This has led to tensions and military standoffs with other countries in the region, such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan.
China’s territorial claims have also been met with pushback and condemnation from the international community. Many countries and international organizations, such as the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations, have criticized China for its territorial expansion and militarization of disputed islands in the South China Sea. In addition to its territorial disputes, China’s rise has also led to increased competition and tensions with other major powers, such as the United States, over issues related to trade, technology, and influence in various regions around the world. Overall, the rise of China has led to a re-evaluation of the existing international borders and the way countries interact with one another, and has the potential to reshape the international order in the coming years.
Focus of the Study:
The territorial rise of China and its assertive actions in advancing its territorial claims have been seen by many countries as a threat to their own sovereignty and security. This is particularly true for countries in the Asia-Pacific region, who have territorial disputes with China over islands, reefs and waters in the South China Sea. The territorial disputes have led to increased military activity and a build-up of armed forces in the region, raising concerns about the potential for military conflict. The disputes have also led to economic disruption and have hindered freedom of navigation and overflight in the region.
China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea have also been met with pushback and condemnation from the international community. Many countries, including the United States, have called for China to abide by international law and respect the sovereignty of other countries in the region. The territorial disputes and assertiveness of China also have a broader impact on the global order. The strong opposition from other countries has led to the formation of alliances and partnerships between countries to counterbalance China’s rising power. In addition, China’s territorial expansion can also be seen as an attempt to gain control over the resources in the disputed areas, such as fisheries, oil, and gas reserves, which can be a major concern for the countries in the region that are dependent on these resources. This can also lead to economic disruption, as they can impede freedom of navigation and overflight in the region. This can disrupt the flow of goods and resources, and can negatively impact the global economy. China’s territorial rise and assertiveness in advancing its territorial claims have been seen as a threat to the sovereignty and security of other countries in the region and have the potential to destabilize the regional and global order.
Tensions and military standoffs between China and other countries in the region, such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan, are primarily due to territorial disputes over islands, reefs, and waters in the South China Sea. China claims a large portion of the South China Sea as its territorial waters, including islands and reefs that are also claimed by other countries in the region. China and the Philippines have long-standing disputes over the Spratly and Scarborough islands, with both countries claiming sovereignty over the islands and their surrounding waters. China’s construction of military facilities on the disputed islands has led to a military standoff between the two countries and condemnation from the international community. Vietnam and China also have territorial disputes in the South China Sea, primarily over the Paracel and Spratly islands. China’s assertive actions in the region, such as oil and gas exploration and the building of military facilities on disputed islands, have led to tensions and military standoffs between the two countries. Similarly, China and Japan have a dispute over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands, which are uninhabited but are believed to be rich in natural resources. China’s increasing maritime activities in the area and its claim over the islands have led to tensions and military standoffs between the two countries, raising concerns about the potential for military conflict and escalating tensions between China and other countries in the region such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan.
In terms of trade, China’s rapid economic growth has made it a major player in the global economy, and it is now the world’s largest trading nation. However, its trade practices and economic policies have been a source of tension and disagreement with other major powers, particularly the United States. For example, the US has criticized China for its trade surplus, currency manipulation, and intellectual property theft. These tensions led to a trade war between the two countries, with tariffs and trade restrictions being imposed on each other’s goods, which affected the global economy. In terms of technology, China’s rapid technological advancements, particularly in areas such as 5G, artificial intelligence, and semiconductors have been a source of concern for other major powers, including the United States. The US has accused China of stealing intellectual property and engaging in forced technology transfer, and has imposed restrictions on Chinese companies such as Huawei in order to limit their access to American technology. In terms of influence, China’s rise has led to increased competition with other major powers for influence in various regions around the world. For example, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a massive infrastructure and investment program, has been viewed by some countries as a way for China to expand its economic and political influence in Asia, Europe, and Africa. This has led to concerns about China’s increasing global influence and its potential to challenge the existing international order. China’s rise as a major economic and military power has led to increased competition and tensions with other major powers, particularly the United States, over issues related to trade, technology, and influence in various regions around the world. These tensions have the potential to disrupt the existing global order and have a significant impact on the global economy.
The solution to the territorial rise of China and its assertive actions in advancing its territorial claims is a complex and multifaceted issue. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and a variety of approaches may be necessary to address the problem. One approach is to seek a diplomatic solution to the territorial disputes. This can involve negotiations and diplomatic efforts to resolve disputes peacefully and through international legal mechanisms, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Another approach is to strengthen regional security and military cooperation between countries in the region to counterbalance China’s rising power. This can involve increasing military exercises, sharing intelligence, and building a regional security architecture to manage disputes and prevent conflicts.
Economic measures such as trade sanctions, tariffs, and investment restrictions can also be used to pressure China to change its behaviour. However, this approach carries the risk of economic disruption, and it is also not guaranteed to change China’s behaviour. Another alternative solution would be to involve China in multilateral organizations and global governance systems, encouraging them to play a constructive role in maintaining international peace and security, and promoting economic cooperation, this would help in tackling China’s territorial rise of borders, by making them a responsible stakeholder in the international community.
Ultimately, a comprehensive and coordinated approach, involving a combination of diplomatic, economic, and military measures, is likely to be most effective in addressing the territorial rise of China and its assertive actions in advancing its territorial claims. It’s important to understand that this is a complex issue that requires a nuanced approach and cooperation among the international community.
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