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The battle for the Iranian nuclear deal: China approaches a watershed

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Conventional wisdom has it that China stands to benefit from the US withdrawal from the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran, particularly if major European companies feel that the risk of running afoul of US secondary sanctions is too high.

In doing so, China would draw on lessons learnt from its approach to the sanctions regime against Iran prior to the nuclear deal. China supported the sanctions while proving itself adept at circumventing the restrictions.

However, this time round, as China joins Russia and Europe in trying to salvage the deal, things could prove to be different in ways that may give China second thoughts.

The differences run the gamut from an America that has Donald Trump as its president to a Middle East that is much more combative and assertive and sees its multiple struggles as existential, at least in terms of regime survival.

Fault lines in the Middle East have hardened because of Israel, Saudi and United Arab Emirates assertiveness, emboldened by both a US administration that is more partisan in its Middle East policy, yet at the same time less predictable and less reliable.

Add to this Mr. Trump’s narrow and transactional focus that targets containing Iran, if not toppling its regime; countering militancy, and enhancing business opportunities for American companies and the contours of a potentially perfect storm come into view.

That is even truer if one looks beyond the Gulf and the Levant towards the greater Middle East that stretches across Pakistan into Central Asia as well as China’s overall foreign trade.

China’s trade with the United States stood last year at $636 billion, trade with Iran was in that same period at $37.8 billion or less than five percent of the US volume.

The recent case of ZTE, one of China’s largest IT companies, tells part of the story.

Accused of having violated sanctions, the US Department of Commerce banned American firms from selling parts to ZTE, bringing the company to near bankruptcy. Mr. Trump appears to be willing to help salvage ZTE, but the incident significantly raises the stakes, particularly as China and the United States try to avoid a trade war.

That is but one consideration in China’s calculations. Potentially, other major bumps in saving the nuclear agreement lurk around the corner and could prove to be equally, if not more challenging.

Tensions in the Middle East are mounting. The fallout of Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and seemingly unqualified backing of Israel in its almost certainly stillborn plan for peace with the Palestinian is reverberating.

Discontent across the region simmers just below the surface, magnified by youth and next generations in countries like Syria and Yemen who have little to look forward to.

The bumps fall into three categories: the degree to which China feels that it can continue to rely on the US defence umbrella in the Gulf; pressure on China by Middle Eastern states to shoulder the responsibility that comes with being a great power, if not take sides; and change in a region that is in a process of transition that is volatile, violent and could take decades to play out.

Yet, as China takes stock of the Middle East’s volatility and China’s strategic stake in regional stability, it appears ill-equipped to deal with an environment in which its traditional policy tools either fall short or no longer are applicable.

Increasingly, China will have to become a geopolitical rather than a primarily economic player in competitive cooperation with the United States, the dominant external actor in the region for the foreseeable future.

China has signalled its gradual recognition of these new realities with the publication in January 2016 of an Arab Policy Paper, the country’s first articulation of a policy towards the Middle East and North Africa.

But, rather than spelling out specific policies, the paper reiterated the generalities of China’s core focus in its relations with the Arab world: economics, energy, counter-terrorism, security, technical cooperation and its Belt and Road initiative.

Ultimately however, China will have to develop a strategic vision that outlines foreign and defence policies it needs to put in place to protect its expanding interests; its role and place in the region as a rising superpower, and its relationship and cooperation with the United States in managing, if not resolving conflict.

To be sure, China is taking baby steps in that direction with its greater alignment with international moves to combat Islamic militancy even if its campaign in north-western China risks straining relations with the Islamic world, the creation of a military facility in Djibouti, work on a naval base in Pakistan’s Jiwari peninsula, and cross-border operations in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Those may be the easier steps. Dealing with partners like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that seek to establish regional hegemony by imposing their will on others at whatever cost may be more difficult. So far, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not pressured China to choose in their rivalry with Iran.

But it can only be a matter of time before they do, particularly if Chinese investment in Iran and trade were able to offset the impact of US sanctions to the degree that the Islamic republic is not forced to compromise. To evade that situation, China has offered to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran, an offer the kingdom was unwilling to take up.

China is not immune to Saudi pressure. To protect their Saudi and UAE interests, Chinese alongside Hong Kong and Japanese banks refused earlier this year to participate in a one-year extension of a $575 million syndicated loan to Doha Bank, Qatar’s fifth-biggest lender.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia in April forced major multi-national financial institutions to choose sides in the Gulf spat with Qatar. In response to Saudi pressure, JP Morgan and HSBC walked away from participating in a $12 billion Qatari bond sale opting for a simultaneous Saudi offering instead.

The stakes for Saudi Arabia in Iran are far greater than those in Qatar. Iran poses an existential threat to the House of Saud for reasons far more intrinsic than the accusations Riyadh lobs at Tehran. The more Iran is able to defeat US sanctions, the more Saudi Arabia is likely to push China and to reduce their support of the nuclear agreement.

That pressure can take multiple forms. With US-backed efforts at regime change in Tehran potentially on the horizon, Saudi Arabia has put building blocks in place over the last two years.

Large sums originating in the kingdom have found their way to militant, virulently anti-Shiite, ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim madrassas or religious seminaries in the Pakistani province of Balochistan that borders on the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan.

A Saudi thinktank allegedly backed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has developed plans to stir unrest among the Baloch minority in Iran, partly in a bid to complicate operations at the Indian-backed port of Chabahar, a mere 75 kilometres up the coast from Gwadar, a crown jewel of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, China’s $50 billion plus Belt and Road stake in Pakistan.

China, moreover, has so far relied on its economic clout as well as Saudi Arabia to remain silent about a crackdown in Xinjiang that targets Islam, putting the kingdom as custodian of Islam’s two most holy cities in an awkward position.

The long and short of all of this is that, in an environment in which the Middle East views conflicts as zero-sum games, China is likely to find it increasingly difficult to remain aloof and straddle both sides of the fence. Salvaging the Iranian nuclear deal could come at a cost China may not want to pay.

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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East Asia

Is China on the brink of a food crisis?

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It is not a secret that the current COVID-19 pandemic has been affecting people all around the globe. The virus touched almost all spheres of regular life – i.e. it resulted in temporary or permanent closure of businesses, a rise in the unemployment rate, inability to physically spend time with family and friends. Such drastic changes in times of uncertainty significantly impacted the well-being of the world population. Moreover, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) warned about the emerging food shortages worldwide. According to FAO statistics, global food prices have been on the rise for four consequent months, hitting their maximum in September 2020. China – the place where the virus originated – is one of the states that have been seriously affected by the disruptions, including production and distribution of food.

In his speech on August, 11 Chinese leader Xi Jinping did not admit any food shortages. However, he promoted food security through the campaign “operation empty plate,” thereby encouraging people to stop wasting food. It is interesting to note that Mao Zedong introduced a similar food campaign before the 1959 Great Chinese Famine. Meanwhile, there has undoubtedly been a significant increase in food prices in China. Many experts claim that China is on the brink of a food crisis that has been manifested as a result of lockdowns, infected livestock, and poor weather conditions. It is difficult to give any predictions or estimations about the future food situation in China because the country does not share enough of its data with the rest of the world, yet it is possible to answer the question why the state faces food difficulties.

Average food prices increase

The National Bureau of Statistics of China reported that, on average, food prices have increased by 11.2% compared to 2019. The price level of vegetables increased by 6.4% in one month; egg prices soared by 11.3% within the same period. Pork prices grew the most, by 52.6% compared to the last year’s statistics. Why is it important?

Firstly, many workers and their families who faced loss or decrease of income or remittances became food insecure. That, in turn, has had social repercussions for the overall level of crime, health concerns among adults and infants, high death rate, different demographic and economic challenges. Furthermore, international trade will also suffer: due to the lack of labor force Chinese imports in foreign countries will seemingly increase in price.

Secondly, China, along with other countries, was in a period of recession earlier this year. Food insecurity will cause difficulties in coming out of this financial downturn.

The impact of lockdowns on food supply chains

One of the main factors contributing to the declining agricultural productivity and spiking food prices in China is the restrictions on personal mobility and transportation of goods. In January Chinese authorities adopted measures to limit mobility within the country; they imposed “city lockdowns, traffic control, and closed management of villages and communities.” Such restrictions impacted food supply chains. For the production part many workers experienced difficulties getting to work that created a shortage of physical labor. That is why some crops were not picked, others were not even planted. As a result, the supply of agricultural goods decreased. On the other hand, at the beginning of the year, the demand for them also fell as restaurants and bars were closed. Thereby, many crops went to waste, while farmers did not make enough profit to purchase the seeds and fertilizers for the next season. It is a problem because businesses continue to open up, raising the demand and prices on crops. Immobility also impacted the distribution of seeds and fertilizers to the farms that disrupted the plantation season. Furthermore, the distribution of agricultural goods to grocery stores became difficult. Particular inconveniences associated with the restrictions on mobility all added up to the spike of prices on crops.

African Swine fever outbreak

Another factor impacting the emerging food crisis in China is the failure to rebuild last year’s loss of pigs due to the infection. Chinese porcine farms were hit by the African swine fever outbreak that infected and killed a large number of pigs (40% of total Chinese pigs’ population), decreasing the supply but increasing the prices on pork in 2019. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, pork prices were 52.6% higher in August this year than the year before, while corn prices – the main porcine fodder – increased by 20% compared to last year. Chinese farmers failed to improve the situation in 2020 due to severe flooding. The increased amount of precipitation caused considerable losses of corn and thus the inability to feed pigs. China began to import crops from abroad – particularly, corn from the US. As the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) stated, China had been importing 195,000 more tonnes of American corn than the year before.

Shuttered diplomatic relations between China and Western states

Some experts claim that Chinese diplomatic relations with such Western countries as Australia, the US and Canada shattered due to the fire of four ballistic missiles on the Indian border on August, 26. These states are China’s major food exporters. If their diplomatic relations with Beijing worsen, then the trade has a high chance of being negatively affected as well. In other words, Chinese imports of crops have the risk of becoming more expensive, meaning that the prices of pork and other goods might rise even more.

Severe flooding and drought

Finally, worsened weather conditions – some parts of China experienced drought, others were hit by flooding – led to a decrease in crops and a significant increase in food prices. Southern, Central and Eastern China underwent a period of heavy rain and the worst flooding in the last hundred years. Excessively high water levels in major Chinese rivers, including the Yangtze River, resulted in the evacuation of 15 million people in July 2020. Moreover, the flooding destroyed 13 million acres of agricultural land, which is estimated to cost at least $29 billion of economic damage. In the meantime Northern (Xinjiang province) and Southwest (Yunnan province) China have gone through a period of severe drought. In April 2020 nearly 1.5 million people in Yunnan province were caught in an emergency situation: shortages of drinking water, damage of hundreds of hectares of crops and livestock. Consequently, the supply of many agricultural goods and pork decreased, which spiked the prices on these goods.

Chinese long-term prospects toward food security

To conclude, immobility, African swine flu, worsened weather and security conditions led to the growing food shortages and increasing food prices in China. This being said, the Chinese government has been working on that problem. It has taken special measures to ensure sufficience of agricultural goods by investing in various disaster relief funds for different crops, particularly rice and wheat. For example, Chinese authorities allocated 1.4 billion yuan to save the agricultural harvest in Hubei province. Due to the substantial loss of agricultural products, China has also increased its imports. General Administration of Customs reported that China’s grain imports rose by 22.7% in July 2020 compared to the previous year. Meanwhile, the Chinese leader took a gentle approach to solve this problem. He did not announce the issues related to the insufficient number of crops; instead, he adopted a program for encouraging people to be more frugal with their eating habits. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences followed the same path as it denied anticipation of a food crisis in the short-term perspective, yet warned about possible food shortfalls by 2025 if no agricultural reforms take place. As of now, China is not on the break of a food crisis; however, its shuttered prospects for long-term food sustainability are subject to dangerous repercussions.

From our partner RIAC

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East Asia

China and Mongolia: A Comprehensive and Never-Ending Strategic Partnership

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Mongolia is an exceptional country when it comes to Eurasian geopolitics, linking China with Russia, two great countries in terms of military and economic capabilities, geographical area and population. In June 2016, the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor (CMREC) was announced in order to consolidate friendly relations and promote economic exchanges for the success of the Belt and Road Initiative. Many reports indicate the great position of Mongolia on the Chinese economic map as a pillar of the modern Chinese initiative. Mongolia is a major economic partner of China, and the Chinese administration aspires to forge permanent relations of cooperation and coordination with Mongolia by virtue of its common geography and strategic location, in order to open up through it to Russia and other Mongolia is a key economic partner of China, and the Chinese administration aspires to forge permanent relations of cooperation and coordination with Mongolia by virtue of its common geography and strategic location, in order to open up through it to Russia and other international partners.

Mongolia is rich in natural resources, for example the mining industry provided up to 30% of GDP and almost 90% of exports, but its economy is not as developed compared to China. Some economic reports indicate the great economic benefit to Mongolia from the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor. Mongolia is expected to witness unparalleled economic growth in terms of international economic cooperation, which will positively affect the national economy. The Mongolian economy depends heavily on China’s investment; data of the two largest ports in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in northern China indicates enormous economic benefits. In the chart below, the continued economic progress achieved in Inner Mongolia is shown. In addition, rail trade increased by 16 percent year-on-year to 11.2 million tons in 2017. In the same year, 570 trips were made on the China-Europe railways passing through Ernhot (a county-level city of the XilinGol League, in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, located in the Gobi Desert along the Sino-Mongolian border, across from the Mongolian town of Zamyn-Üüd).

The Belt and Road Initiative aims for mutual profit, cooperation and peaceful communication. China shares an ancient cultural history with Mongolia, long common borders, and economic cooperation that has never stopped. The strategic geographic location of Mongolia makes it a priority for China on the new Silk Road, in addition to the richness of natural resources and livestock that China needs.

The Mongolians are a horse-loving people, a country known for its large number of horses. Mongols without horses are like birds without wings. Despite globalization and the great economic progress in the neighbor (China), as well as the cold weather and difficult geography, the Mongolians did not abandon their traditions and the Mongolian way of life still exists today. In Mongolia there are herders of horses, camels and cattle to benefit from milk, meat, wool, etc. During the pandemic in China, for example, President Battulga set up what is known as “Sheep Diplomacy” where Mongolian President donated 30,000 sheep to China. This initiative indicates the Mongolians’ positive intentions towards the Chinese and the desire to open up more. In this context, I would like to point out that China is a big importer of meat and the Chinese demand for meat is constantly increasing, as shown in the chart below. Here is a great opportunity for Mongolia to increase its exports of meat to the Chinese market.

The reading of Mongolian history indicates that this country has passed through periods of prosperity. Mongolia may be a good example of power and rule, as its borders extended to many countries during the rule of Genghis Khan (1162-1227), the man whom the Mongolians consider their historical leader and has turned into a hero and a national symbol. The Mongolians did not abandon their land despite the cold weather and difficult geography, indicating that they are a deeply rooted people with land. Mongolia, with its vast territories and few people, has turned into a meeting place for Russia and China, and a strategic center for Chinese economic expansion. Therefore, it is impossible for the Chinese administration to abandon the partnership with Mongolia.

The Mongolian economy is heavily dependent on livestock, and the number of pastures has increased significantly since the Soviet era because of the transfer of ownership to the people. However, the government is still not able to provide all services to citizens “the government has failed to promote education and health care and veterinary care in pastoral communities, so there is no longer any incentive to stay in rural areas” said Sarol Khuadu, an official at the Institute for Environmental Research in the Mongolian capital. The policy, which no longer places much emphasis on the countryside, has led to the transfer of large numbers of citizens to the capital and to engage in the world of money and business.

Unfortunately, the Mongolian government is not working seriously to support citizens in remote areas. The conditions of life are not good and the loans granted are high interest, in addition to the weather that adversely affects their businesses. In order to help the poor and rural people, in cooperation with national governments, humanitarian, development and scientific partners, FAO has developed an early warning approach by monitoring risk information systems and turning warnings into proactive actions. International organizations contribute to permanent humanitarian and social assistance in Mongolia.

Mongolia’s strategic policy through the “Mongolia Steppe Road Program 蒙古国“草原之路” is largely in line with the belt and road initiative, which is a road connecting Mongolia, China and Russia. Consequently, Mongolia, a country that mainly depends on the agricultural sector, will be a center for economic communication between China and Russia, and thus will witness a great economic development. The Steppe Road Program aims to boost Mongolia’s economic standing and create an advanced network of infrastructure for communication with China and Russia and build an oil and gas pipeline. In 2014, during his historic visit, Chinese President Xi Jinping raised the level of relations between the two countries to “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Relations”. Since then, bilateral cooperation has begun to move faster.

China has never abandoned Mongolia; it is a country of advanced strategic location as a bridge between Asia and Europe, in addition to the important agricultural sector in Mongolia which benefits China greatly, not to forget to mention the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor which has become an important part of the belt and road initiative and a key component of Sino-Russian cooperation.

The relationship between China and Mongolia today is an ideal example of the bilateral relationship between two neighboring countries. Cultural, economic, political and tourism communication is in continuous progress between the Chinese and Mongolians, and the Belt and Road Initiative will push this communication forward. The Chinese aspire to increase free trade areas and economic connectivity through a developed infrastructure network.

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Chinese Smart Power

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China is a unique country as it holds a world with Chinese Characteristics. China has rapidly transformed from an underdeveloped country to a key player in international politics.

Mao Zedong stated- “Political Power grows out of the barrel of the gun” reflects a perspective of hard power but Hooghe stated that the Chinese havechanged and do not even like the idea of smart power as it holdsa hard power component in it. President Hu Jintao in the 17th Party Congress favored smart power as he believed that China needs to keep a balance between hard power and soft power to avoid other countries create a coalition against China.

China becomes a difficult country to analyze as it holds a strong Confucian face-saving culture and does not like being criticized butits opponents continue to demonize it.

China understands the scene in international politics and prepares a centralized plan to acquire politicaland economic gains.

In 2005, China tried to gift two pandas to Taiwan which was refused by Taiwan as Taiwan consider this would violate the 1963 Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

China had argued that the transfer of Panda would remain an internal transfer within China even when the Taiwanese wanted to acquire two pandas that were appealing to its public theyfailed to acquire them. This could have helped China to gain the legitimacy of its one-China policy without provoking any actor.

The concept of soft power can be far more complex, as it could be a process to gain legal recognition without provoking a hostile population. The American production of Kung Fu Panda helped China in enhancing Panda Diplomacy.

Chinese more effectively controls Hollywood with Chinese investment and as American producers’ make an effort to be screened in Chinese theatre by being accepted in China’s quota for moving screening in Chinese theatre.

Tiktok which now is in a position of being banned in the United States indicates that the government is forced to take measurements due to the rising popularity of Chinese application in the American market.

China’s ban of the National Basketball Association (NBA) for a year also reflects China can force its opponents to maintain self-censorship for the sake of material incentives as mentioned by Ikenberry and Kupchan as a form of ‘external inducement’ leading to ‘policy change’ which would change the standard norm.

China has effectively used education as a medium to socialize with other countries which gets difficult to scrutinize by western powers.

The Former Prime Minister of Kazakhstan Karim Massimov and the President of EthiopiaMalatu Teshome had studied in China and later enhanced the relationship between their countries after they took offices. China’s 2008 defensewhite paper mentions4,000 military personnel from around 130 countries came to study in China for military education. China can combine educational diplomacy as a technique to enhance its military diplomacy and even use it to forge political allies.

Chinese Government operates Confucius Institutelike German use Goethe-Institut and France use Alliance Française to promote their languages.

The western world has worried as universities have started to impose regulations in favor of China after they operate Confucius Institute and even the students are likely to speak in a favorable tone to maintain a good image for the sake of acquiring a scholarship.

Dong and Chapman‘s research showed that 94.3% believed they had made the right choice coming to China, 91.6% believed that the scholarship would help in building a bilateral relationship between their countries, and 77.4% of people were satisfied studying in China.

China effectively funds various educational programs that educate smart or elite students from developing countries which generally hold a positive viewpoint of China as being emotionally connected to Chinese friends and tutors.

Chinese books such as Sun Tzu Art of War and Laozi’s book Dao De Jing have gained international attention which has allowed people to respect Chinese philosophy.

China is far more powerful than many scholars imagine and is more than just the factory of the world. China can use institutions such as cinematics, education, and various forms of arts in its favor.

China with heritages that include the Great Wall of China and Shaolin Temple has helped China to create a powerful image that is both precious and timeless.

China is one of the key three East Asian countries that has played a significant role in shaping international politics. The region is a strong contender in Olympics, have excellent cuisine,and are well recognized for their digital tools that are celebrated in around the world.

 ChinaJapanSouth Korea
PhysicalDiplomacyCuppings, Tai chiKarate, JudoTaekwondo
a) Olympics Medals608498337
GastrodiplomacyNoodles, DumplingsSushi, WasabiGimbap, Kimchi
Audio-visual diplomacyTiktokAnime, MangaK-pop
The Soft Power 30 (2019)Rank:27
Score:51.25
Rank:8
Score:75.71
Rank:19
Score:63.00
Economic Diplomacy   
a) Exports (2018)$2.59trillion Rank:1$713 billion Rank:4$617 billion Rank:5
b) BrandsXiaomi, AlibabaToyota, HondaSamsung,Hyundai
a) World Heritage Sites552314
b) Intangible Cultural Heritage402120
c) WEF, Travel & Tourism Competitive (2019)Rank: 13
Score:4.9
Rank: 4
Score:5.4
Rank: 16
Score:4.8
d) Revenue by Tourism (2018)$11 billion$45 billion$18.46 billion

The public generally does not have time to go into details of the report but would make a quick judgment by looking at the score and rank given by various organizations that would help build the national image.

The chart indicates China is surrounded by one of the most competitive neighborhoods which also contributesto building an environment that is boiling with soft and smart power.

China has an advantage in Travel and Tourism due to its massive as China has the highest World Heritage Site and Intangible Heritage List while South Korea and Japan are making more revenue through tourism.

China is also the world’s largest exporter and sits beside other major exporting countries creating a hot belt of traders. The culture of competing in sports help China in building a competitive culture with its neighbors.

The presence of South Korea and Japan are significant as these two are also very important countries with Confucian values.

China intends to develop its soft power to use and buildi) national cohesion, ii) a stable and reliable economy, iii) a trustworthy state, and iv) an ancient but vibrant country.

Chinese gallery, clinics, and restaurants serve as a place for gathering and sharing their rich heritage. They could feel blessed with Chinese culture as well as feel strong being the world’s largest exporter. The Chinese dream creates this cohesive attitude and legitimacy of the regime.

Stability plays a key role in obtaining and holding Foreign Direct Investment. Stability is also key to the continuity of growth and helps in generating wealth to purchase and maintain security instruments.

Trustworthiness has been extremely difficult for China with its historic secretive attitude specifically in case of its habit of not disclosing international health threats as quickly as possible as they feel threatened by mass panic and face-saving culture.

 In 2013 President Xi Jinping remarked that the Chinese Dream would benefit other countries and their peopleby connecting the idea of an ancient country with modern technology.

The amount of criticism China receives projects the fear of foreign countries associated with the Thucydides trap. However, China still needs to modernize itself to be accepted as an ancient but vibrant country.It still needs to learn from its mistakes to be seen as a trustworthy and stable country to build its smart power to its full potential.

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