We May Have Stumbled, but We Have Not Fallen Down
On Friday November 9, 2018, Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz made a statement about the detention of a retired Austrian officer on suspicion of spying for Russia. Minister of Foreign Affairs of Austria Karin Kneissl cancelled her December visit to Russia. That very same day, the Ambassador of the Republic of Austria to Russia, Johannes Aigner, was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. Journalists expressed concern that the situation would have an impact on the development of relations between Russia and Austria and further effect the EU–Russia relationship. Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov expressed his regret that the West was increasingly turning to “microphone and megaphone diplomacy” instead of turning to Russia directly for clarification, which has always been the case in international relations.
The fallout from this incident will only become clear later. It is unlikely that it will result in any serious consequences, for example, a new round of sanctions or a sharp deterioration in relations. At the very least, Friday’s events did not affect the development of interaction at the level of track one and a half diplomacy. On Monday November 12, the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) hosted a seminar entitled “EU–Russian Relations in the Context of the Republic of Austria’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union.” The meeting was organized by RIAC in conjunction with the Embassy of the Republic of Austria in Russia and the European Union Delegation to the Russian Federation. It was attended by Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Alexander Grushko, Ambassador of the Republic of Austria to Russia Johannes Aigner and the Head of the European Union Delegation to the Russian Federation Markus Ederer. Participants included ambassadors of EU countries and Russian experts on EU–Russia relations. During the closed-door discussion, the ambassadors and experts talked about factors influencing the development of bilateral relations between Russia and Austria, and between Russia and the European Union, and outlined a number of development trends. It is important to note here that Friday’s incident was not brought up or discussed at the meeting.
Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union
Presidency of the Council of the European Union changes hands among EU member countries on a rotating basis every six months. During the six-month presidency, the country chairs meetings of the Council at all levels, ensuring consistency of the European Union’s work within the Council. To this end, the European Union employs a mechanism of a “trio presidency,” or simply Trio. Trios set long-term goals and draw up a common agenda on the main issues to be considered by the Council over the course of the next 18 months. Each country then prepares a more detailed programme on the basis of this agenda for their respective six-month terms. Presidency of the Council of the European Union entails, first and foremost, supervising the Council’s work on the development of EU legislation. The president country chairs meetings of the Council’s various structures, with the exception of the Foreign Affairs Council. However, it does work in close cooperation with the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and supports its work.
Austria took over presidency of the Council of Europe for the second half of 2018, being part of the trio that includes Estonia and Bulgaria. Contacts between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation and the European External Action Service have been adequately maintained during the Republic of Austria’s presidency. Dmitry Medvedev has met with Jean-Claude Juncker, Sergey Lavrov has met with Federica Mogherini and regular working meetings and expert discussions have taken place. Indeed, Russia has a special relationship with Austria. Throughout the crisis, Austria has been a bridge between Russia and the European Union, maintaining an objective and loyal attitude towards the country and not succumbing to the general hysteria sweeping the continent. Austria has always believed that it is important to preserve communication channels with Moscow. For example, Austria did not follow the lead of other Western countries that expelled Russian diplomats in a display of solidarity with the United Kingdom following the Skripal case. In the context of the crisis in EU–Russia relations, it is in the interests of both sides to have a neutral mediator. We have to hope that Austria will continue to fulfil that role.
Islands of Cooperation between Russia and the EU
The discussion at the seminar once again demonstrated that Ukraine remains a sticking point in EU–Russia relations. Moscow and Brussels differ in their opinions on the reasons for the crisis in their relations, as well as on the reasons for the Ukrainian crisis and current events around it. As far as the European Union is concerned, the crisis has been primarily caused by Russia’s policy towards Ukraine. Russia, meanwhile, believes that the causes of the crisis had been simmering long before the events in Ukraine, owing to the accumulated problems between Russia and the West. Key among these problems, according to Russia, is the eastward expansion of NATO in total disregard of Russia’s security interests. Moscow regards the events in Ukraine in 2014 as a coup d’état that threatens the Russian-speaking population and ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, while the European Union sees them as a popular protest against the regime. Both Russia and the European Union call for the resolution of the Ukrainian crisis and the implementation of the Minsk agreements. However, the approaches of the two sides are irreconcilable. Russia believes that Kiev’s policies are blocking the implementation of the Minsk agreements. The European Union sees otherwise, blaming Russia’s policies for impeding the proper fulfilment of the agreements. Russia does not even see itself as a party to the conflict. Moscow is in favour of improving relations with the European Union, as it believes that further deterioration is not in the interests of any of the parties. For the European Union, improving relations involves changing Russia’s policies.
Despite the deep crisis in EU–Russia relations, there do exist certain “islands of cooperation.” First and foremost, humanitarian cooperation remains one of the few areas of regular interaction between the two sides. This includes cooperation in science, culture, education and academic exchanges. Liberalizing the visa regime would contribute to greater mobility and success in this area, but it is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future given the current political climate.
When states experience difficulties in their official relations, non-governmental channels are often used to maintain a dialogue – non-profit organizations, analytical centres, contacts among academic institutions and scientists, expert dialogues, etc. The political situation could very well change at some point in the future, which is why it makes sense now to work out a strategy for cooperation if and when that does happen, at least at the expert level.
Russian experts and members of the political community support the idea of cooperation between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), seeing it as a niche area of interaction with the participation of Russia and the European Union. However, European experts and EU officials have expressed their concerns that the EAEU is not a purely economic integration association. In particular, many European experts see the creation of the EAEU as an attempt to restore Russian influence in the post-Soviet space. At the political level, the reaction is more restrained. The Global Strategy for the Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union states that the European Union supports regional integration and is prepared to cooperate with regional associations. However, the Eurasian Economic Union is not named as one of those associations. EU officials complain that the interests and positions of the EAEU member countries are not aligned, which makes it difficult to cooperate with it as an association. At the same time, attempts have been made to cooperate with the Eurasian Economic Union at the technical level. It is probably best in this situation to work out issues of interaction at the level of track one and a half diplomacy beforehand, involving representatives from interested EU and EAEU countries in the process.
Russia and the European Union have common interests with regard to China. In particular, many experts believe that both players could take a more proactive stance on China’s Belt and Road Initiative to strengthen connectivity in the Eurasian region. Cooperation could be built in the format of the European Union, Russia, the Eurasian Economic Union, China and Central Asian states.
Of course, this set of initiatives is not enough for a full-fledged cooperation agenda, but it is a niche for interaction during the crisis in the relations between Russia and the West. Limited interaction between Russia and the European Union is evident against the background of a rapidly changing world, the growing threat of terrorism and extremism, the conflict in the Middle East, the technological revolution in the military sphere, the growing threats in cyberspace and the significant changes in the foreign policy of the United States under the Donald Trump administration, which has seen the country increasingly becoming a factor of instability and unpredictability in global politics. It is in the interests of both Russia and the European Union to come together to resolve these issues, as well as many others, in a coordinated fashion.
First published in our partner RIAC
Russia Postpones BRICS Summit to Later Date
The summits of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states have been postponed from July to a later date, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Kremlin press service said on May 27.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), established in 2001, brings together China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia are SCO observers, while Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey are dialogue partners.
“In light of the global pandemic and the temporary restrictions linked to it, the Organizing Committee for the preparation and securement of the chairmanship of the Russian Federation in the SCO in 2019-2020 and BRICS in 2020 has made a decision to postpone the meeting of the BRICS leaders and the session of the SCO Heads of State Council earlier scheduled for July 21-23 in St. Petersburg to a later date,” the press service said in a statement.
The new dates for the summits will be determined depending on the further development of the epidemiological situation in the member states and in the world in general, the statement said.
As part of the events, Foreign Ministers from BRICS held their meeting online late April while the Ministers of Health held theirs in May. BRICS members were, particularly, looking for ways to step up cooperation within the bloc to contain coronavirus pandemic, as well as to revive the economies that have received a major blow due to the travel restrictions and lockdown imposed in most countries to curb the spread of coronavirus.
Throughout 2020, – under the theme “BRICS Partnership for Global Stability, Shared Security and Innovative Growth” – Russia holds the BRICS pro tempore presidency.
The emphasis of the Russian presidency is on promoting science, technology and innovation and digital economy and health, and strengthening cooperation in the fight against transnational crimes.
In addition to those, dozens of academic, sporting, cultural and artistic events planned for the year. St Petersburg was chosen as the venue in accordance with the Presidential Executive Order No. 380 of 15 August 2019.
BRICS is the group composed by the five major emerging countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, – which together represent about 42% of the population, 23% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), 30% of the territory and 18% of the global trade.
Russia vs China
Cooperation between Russia and China has deep historical roots, and its earliest manifestations can be found already during the Chinese civil war. It seems that both countries should be most united by their communist ideology, but the ambitions of their leaders and the willingness to be the first and the most powerful was in fact the dominating force. Relations between these nations have seen times of flourishing, as well as times of military conflict.
The relationship between both countries are currently presented as friendly, but it is difficult to call them truly friendly. Even in the past, relations between the USSR and China were based on each nation’s calculations and attempts to play the leading role, and it doesn’t seem like something has changed at the present, although China has become a “smarter” and resource-wise richer player than Russia.
We will now look at the “similarities” between China and Russia, the ways they are cooperating and future prospects for both of them.
Russia is a semi-presidential federative republic, while China is a socialist nation ruled by the secretary general of its Communist Party.
Already we can see formal differences, but if we dive deeper both countries essentially feel like Siamese twins. There are more than one party in Russia, but only one party decides everything that takes places in the country – United Russia. Russia isn’t even attempting to hide the aim of establishing the said party, which is to support the course taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
China, too, has nine parties, but only one of them is allowed to rule and it is the Communist Party of China which answers to the secretary general who is also the president of the state.
Therefore, there is a single ruling party both in Russia and China, and this party is responsible for implementing and executing whatever the president wishes, meaning that both countries are ruled by a rather narrow circle of people. Forecasting election results in Russia and China is as difficult as being able to tell that the day after Monday is Tuesday. To write this piece, I spent a lot of time reading about the history of China and Russia and the current events taking place in these countries, and for this reason I figured that we also have to look at the meaning of the word “totalitarianism”.
Totalitarianism is a political system in which a country is governed without the participation of its people and decisions are made without the agreement of the majority of the people; in a totalitarian regime the most important social, economic and political affairs are controlled by the state. It is a type of dictatorship where the regime restricts its people in all of the imaginable aspects of life.
Power is held by a small group of people – a clique;
Opposition is suppressed and general terror is a tool for governing the state;
All aspects of life are subordinate to the interests of the state and the dominating ideology;
The public is mobilized using a personality cult of the leader, mass movements, propaganda and other similar means;
Aggressive and expansionist foreign policy;
Total control over public life.
Are China and Russia truly totalitarian states? Formally, no, but if we look at the essence of it we see a completely different picture. We will look at all of the signs of totalitarianism in China and Russia, but we will not delve too deep into events and occurrences that most of us are already familiar with.
Can we say that the majority of Russian and Chinese citizens are engaged in decision making? Formally, sort of, because elections do take place in these countries, but can we really call them “elections”? It would be impossible to list all the video footage or articles that reveal how polling stations operate in order to provide the required election results. Therefore, we can say that the general public is involved in making decisions, it’s just that the results are always determined by those in power.
The last paragraph brings us to the first point: power is held by a small group of people – a clique. Both nations are ruled by presidents who appoint whoever they wish and dismiss whoever they wish. This is power held by a small group of people. The next point – suppressing the opposition and using general terror to govern the state. Media outlets have written enough about suppressing the opposition in both countries, and everyone has seen at least a video or two on this topic. To stop their political opponents and any events organized by them Russia and China use not only their police forces, but the army as well. From time to time, information appears that an opposition activist has been murdered in either of the countries, and these murders are never solved. We will not even begin talking about criminal cases and administrative arrests of opposition activists. We can say that the point in question is completely true. Regarding all of the aspects of life being subordinate to the state and ideology – is there anyone who isn’t convinced by this? If Russia is engaged in restricting and “teaching” its citizens quite inconspicuously, China has no time for ceremony – the Communist Party of China has published new guidelines on improving the “moral quality” of its citizens, and this touches upon all of the imaginable aspects of one’s private life – from organizing wedding ceremonies to dressing appropriately.3 Is the public in Russia and China mobilized using the cult of personality, mass movements, propaganda and other means? We can look at 9 May celebrations in Russia and all of the surrounding rhetoric, and the events dedicated to the anniversary of founding the People’s Republic of China. I’m sorry, but it feels like I’m watching some Stalin and Hitler era montage but in a more modern fashion, and instead of Stalin and Hitler there are some new faces. What is left? Of course, aggressive and expansionist foreign policy. China has been very active in the South China Sea for many years now, which has aggravated tensions among the armed forces of its neighbors – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
China is continuing to physically seize, artificially build and arm islands far from its shores. And in the recent years China has been particularly aggressive towards Taiwan, which the regime sees as being rightfully theirs. China is also willing to impose sanctions against those nations who intend to sell arms to Taiwan.
However, when it comes to armed aggression China pales in comparison to Russia, which isn’t shy to use armed aggression against its close and far neighbors in order to reach its goals. Russia’s aggression goes hand in hand with its nihilism. I am sure I don’t have to remind you about the events in Georgia, Ukraine and previously in Chechnya as well. Russia will use every opportunity to show everyone its great weaponry, and this also includes directly or covertly engaging in different military conflicts.
Maybe some of you will disagree, but as I see it China and Russia currently are totalitarian states in their essence.
History has shown us that up to a certain point even two totalitarian countries are able to cooperate. Let’s remember the “friendship” between Nazi Germany and the USSR, but let’s also not forget what this friendship resulted in.
It is also true that the economic sanctions imposed against Russia have pushed it to be more friendly with China, but it seems that China will come out as the winner of this relationship.
According to data from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, in 2018 the Chinese economy received 56.6 million USD in direct investments from Russia (+ 137.4%), meaning that by the end of 2018 the amount of direct investments from Russia reached 1,066.9 million USD.
In 2018, the Russian economy received 720 million USD in direct investments from China, resulting in a total of 10,960 million USD in direct investments from China by the end of 2018.
The main spheres of Chinese investments in Russia are energy, agriculture and forestry, construction and construction materials, trade, light industry, textiles, household electric goods, services, etc.
The main spheres of Russian investments in China are production, construction and transportation.5 We can see from the amount of investments that in this “friendship” China has far exceeded Russia. We also cannot ignore the fact that China has launched more large-scale investment projects in other nations than Russia has.
It should be noted that China’s procurement of military equipment has allowed Russian armaments programs to exist. Russia sold modern armaments to China, despite the concerns that China will be able to “copy” the received armaments and then improve them. But the need for money was much greater to worry about such things. As a result, in early 2020 it was concluded that China has surpassed Russia in producing and selling armaments.
If we look at the ways Russia and China are attempting to shape public opinion in the long term, we can see some differences. Russia tries to do this using publications, demonstrative activities and attempts for its compatriots to become citizens of their country of residence while maintaining their cultural identity in order to establish an intellectual, economic and spiritually-cultural resource in global politics. China, in addition to all of this, has established Confucius Institutes that are subordinate to the Chinese Ministry of Education. There are a total of 5,418 Confucius Institutes or classes around the world. These institutes, named after the most known Chinese philosopher, have drawn sharp criticism globally for its foreign policy views – ones that avoid discussing human rights or believe that Taiwan or Tibet are inseparable parts of China. These institutes have been accused of espionage and restricting academic freedom.
“The Confucius Institutes are an attractive brand for our culture to spread abroad,” representative of the Communist Party’s Politburo Li Changchun said in 2011. “They have always been an important investment in expanding our soft power. The brand name “Confucius” is quite attractive. By using language tuition as a cover, everything looks logical and acceptable from the outside.” The leadership of the Communist Party calls these institutes a crucial part of its propaganda toolset abroad, and it is estimated that over the past 12 years China has spent roughly two billion USD on them. The constitution of these institutes9 stipulates that their leadership, personnel, guidelines, tuition materials and most of their funding is ensured by the Hanban institution which is under the Chinese Ministry of Education.
Both Russian and Chinese citizens either buy or rent property abroad. Russians do this so they have somewhere to go in case the necessity arises.
Chinese citizens and companies slowly rent or purchase large swathes of land in in the Russian Far East. There is no precise estimate of the amount of land handed over to the Chinese, but it is said it could range between 1–1.5 billion hectares.
What can we conclude from all of this? China and Russia are, in essence, totalitarian states with bloated ambitions. If Russia tries to reach its ambitions in an openly aggressive and shameless manner, then China is doing the same with caution and thought. If Russia often uses military means to reach its goals, China will most likely use financial ones. If Russia attempts to fulfill its ambitions arrogantly, then China achieves the same result with seeming kindness and humility.
Which country has gotten closer to its goal? I believe it is definitely not Russia. In addition, just as the USSR, Russia too believes it is better than China. But for those observing from the sidelines, it is evident that in many areas China has far succeeded Russia and is now even acquiring Russian land.
This brings us back to history – what happens when two totalitarian states share a border? One of them eventually disappears. For now, it seems that China has done everything in its power to stay on the world map.
COVID-19 Presents Both Opportunities and Threats to Russia’s Foreign Policy
Like every major global crisis, the coronavirus pandemic both generates additional risks, challenges and threats to every state’s foreign policy and opens up new opportunities and prospects. Russia is no exception in this. The specific nature of Russia’s case lies, we believe, in its opportunities being mostly tactical and situational, while the threats it faces are strategic and systemic. The balance of opportunities and threats depends on many variables but primarily on how Russia ultimately copes with COVID-19 compared to other states, particularly its international opponents. Any comparative advantage that Moscow has in fighting the virus, be it the numbers infected and lost to COVID-19 or the relative scale of economic losses will somehow expand Moscow’s range of opportunities in the post-virus world. Any failure will increase foreign policy threats and curtail opportunities. Let us compile a preliminary list of these opportunities and threats.
Confirming Russia’s Perspective of the World
Over recent years, Russia’s leadership has insistently advanced its own “Westphalian” picture of international relations, emphasizing the priority of national states and the importance of sovereignty, questioning the stability of Western solidarity and the effectiveness of Western multilateral diplomacy. Thus far, the epidemiological crisis is bearing out the Russian perspective: the crisis is bolstering national states, demonstrating the helplessness of international organizations and generating doubts as to whether the West does, indeed, follow its own declared values and principles. This development both opens up a huge number of additional opportunities for Russia’s domestic and foreign propaganda and justifies the Kremlin’s ambition to be one of the principal architects of the post-crisis world order.
The Possibility of the West Adjusting its International Priorities
The global pandemic that has delivered a particularly grievous (at the moment!) blow to the leading western states may well result in them revising their hierarchy of external threats and, accordingly, adjusting their system of foreign political priorities. In recent years, the established idea of Russia has come to be that of the “main problem” in global politics and the “main threat’ to the interests of the West, while COVID-19 is rapidly eroding this. Such a mental shift is unlikely to result immediately in practical positive shifts in Moscow’s relations with its western partners, but we do believe that it will open up opportunities for a “mini-reset” of these relations. At the very least, we might expect increasing pressure from the West on Moscow, as well as further escalation of the confrontation, to be averted.
The Expanding Global “Power Vacuum”
Proposals for curbing international commitments were popular in developed states, primarily the US, long before the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic will, however, apparently be a powerful catalyst to such sentiments, which will have an increased effect on foreign political practices. This development will manifest itself, in particular, in a possible curtailing of bilateral and multilateral financial and economic aid programmes for the global South and in reduced military and political commitments to developing partner states. The expanding “power vacuum” in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and the post-Soviet space can create additional opportunities for Russia’s foreign policy.
Russia’s Global Economic Standing Deteriorating
The experience of the last global financial and economic crisis in 2008–2009 allows us to conjecture that, in the new upheaval, Russia will be hit harder than other countries. The prospects of even a partial recovery of global oil prices are dubious, accumulated financial reserves will be shrinking rapidly, the timeframe for Russia’s economy returning to the global average growth rate will be revised, and the threat of Russia being pushed on to the periphery of the global economy will remain. Accordingly, there is an emerging threat of Russia’s defence and foreign policy resource base shrinking, and that includes support for Russia’s allies and partners, funding for international organizations, and Russia’s participation in cost-intensive multilateral initiatives (such as implementing the Paris Climate Agreement). If the country’s current socio-economic model remains unchanged in the post-crisis world, the consequences for the “national brand” will be no less significant.
The Rise of Isolationism in Russia
Russian society’s initial reaction to Moscow’s efforts to assist several foreign states (from Italy to Venezuela) was mixed. In general, however, the pandemic is certainly boosting isolationist sentiments and reducing public support for an active and energetic foreign policy. Previously, the public saw demonstration of Russia’s presence in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America as an affirmation of it as a “superpower”, which was perceived in a solely positive light. Now, this presence is, with increasing frequency, viewed as an unfounded waste of shrinking resources. It may be concluded that, given the pandemic, the so-called “Crimean consensus” is becoming entirely ineffective, and it is becoming harder and harder to justify Russia’s foreign policy in the eyes of the country’s population.
The Harsh Bipolarity of the Post-Virus World
The COVID-19 pandemic has evidently accelerated the shaping of the new US-China bipolarity. The recently-launched electoral campaign in the US is marked by Trump and Biden outdoing each other in demonstrating their harsh attitude toward Beijing. The confrontation between the two states is undermining the effectiveness of the UN Security Council, the WHO, G20 and other international organizations. The emerging rigid bipolarity carries systemic risks for all participants in global relations; Russia, additionally, faces other specific threats. The growing asymmetry between the Moscow and Beijing potentials is becoming increasingly visible and cooperation with China’s real or potential opponents (such as India, Vietnam or even Japan) more and more problematic.
“Never waste a good crisis”: this paradoxical adage credited to Winston Churchill is relevant today as never before. Neither Russia nor other states should waste the systemic global crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. A crisis does not give anyone grounds for crossing out their past mistakes or forgetting their past achievements. Yet a crisis is not just a convenient pretext but also a solid reason for shaking up one’s old foreign political “wardrobe.” Close scrutiny is certain to reveal things that are moth-eaten, no longer fit, or are simply no longer fashionable.
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