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Project of the century: How the Belt and Road initiative will impact the Eurasian region

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In 2013, China announced the creation of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century – this initiative of “The Belt and Road” was designed to turn Asia and Europe into a single economic region. It focuses on the industries that are important for the internal growth in China and, at the same time, involves over 70 countries with a total population of 4.4 billion. Today, the initiative has already changed the economy of Eurasian countries significantly. Over the last seven years, the region got approximately $98 billion in investments in order to implement 168 projects.

What’s in it for China?

In recent years, China’s economic growth has slowed from double-digits to 6.4% in 2017. The wide-reaching economic model formerly in use (based on cheap labour, gross investment, and exports) has faced a number of serious challenges.

The country has to overcome industrial overproduction – steel making in China is a great example of this challenge. According to official data, China’s production capacity amounts to 1.1 billion tons per year, while internal demand is approximately 700 million tons, and China’s export partners cannot consume the remaining 400 million tons. The country needs to be provided with an access to new markets and to launch new resource-intensive projects.

In addition, Chinese authorities have been facing the problem of a sharp increase in labour cost. We live in a world where the average labour cost in China ($758) is higher than in Russia ($615). And it causes many multinational corporations to move their manufacturing facilities to other South-East Asian countries, such as Vietnam. China is losing its historical competitive edge – cheap labour, and analysts are increasingly talking about the risk of “stalling” in the trap of average income.

Furthermore, China needs to reduce its debt burden. The country is one of the world leaders in joint debt rating. In 2016, the total debt load in China amounted to $27 trillion, which equals 254% of the country’s GDP. Simultaneously, the amount of “bad” debt in the banking system is growing.

Social inequality and poor ecology exacerbate the situation further. For example, 1% of the wealthiest Chinese control roughly 33% of total national wealth, while 25% of the poorest Chinese possess just a mere 1%. Beijing sees as little as 124 clean days every year, while total environmental destruction amounts to 3.5-5% of China’s total GDP. In addition to a number of internal reforms adopted to create an economic model focused on domestic consumption, the Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, proposed the “Belt and Road” initiative. Among other things, it is designed to stimulate domestic economic growth through external forces – ensuring access to Chinese products in new sales markets, natural resources, integration into complex production chains, exchange of advanced technologies, and the establishment of new high-tech manufacturing facilities in China. To do this, Chinese authorities are attempting to create a large-scale platform that will enable the expansion of trade and investment relationships, as well as technological cooperation between China and Central Asia, Europe, and Africa. This is believed to be a way for China to gain an access to the tools needed to overcome the economic development challenges described above.

China helped create powerful financial institutions in order to finance projects within the framework of the Belt and Road initiative, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank with $100 billion in capital, and the Silk Road Foundation ($40 billion in capital). The New Development Bank (or BRICS Bank) is also seen as an important element of the Belt and Road projects’ financial infrastructure, which will also involve the participation of the largest Chinese state-owned banks and development institutions. The total budget for projects under the Belt and Road initiative is estimated at an astronomical $1.3 trillion. The bulk of these investments is expected to be sent to the countries of the Eurasian Economic Union, including Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, which are key to the implementation of The Belt and Road initiative.

How will this Chinese initiative affect other countries?

The Belt and Road initiative will stimulate major infrastructure changes not only in China, but also in other countries through which the New Silk Road passes. There are expectations for the construction of new roads and railways, power plants, ports and fuel pipelines. The Chinese investments are expected to accelerate the growth of the economies of the countries participating in the Belt and Road initiative.This is precisely what is meant by mutually beneficial cooperation, or the “win-win” model, which Chinese officials often reference. Many believe in the efficacy of such a model. A total of 69 countries and international organizations have entered into agreements with China to cooperatively implement the framework of The Belt and Road initiative. In practice, cooperation is developing in several key areas.

Trade

In the long run, the Chinese government is striving to create a single integrated economic space, with the ultimate goal of establishing a free trade zone. Already, by the end of 2017, China’s trade turnover with the countries that signed cooperation agreements within the framework of the Belt and Road initiative exceeded $800 billion. To further integrate the economies of Asia and Europe, the creation of six economic corridors has been proposed. The main routes of the Silk Road Economic Belt will connect China with Mongolia and Russia, Indo-China, Pakistan, the Republic of Bangladesh, India and Myanmar, as well as Central and Western Asian countries. Today, goods from China are most commonly delivered by sea, taking approximately 45 days. The construction of modern highways and high-speed railways will shorten this delivery period to 10-15 days.

The most important project in this respect is the largest Central Asian land port – Khorgos. This facility is strategically located in Kazakhstan in the Free Economic Zone called “Khorgos – Eastern Gate”, which also includes logistics and industrial zones. China has invested over $3 million in this project, which saw the first trains come to port in 2015. It is expected that the majority of cargo trains traveling between China and Europe will pass through it in the future.

The formation of a modern transport and logistics infrastructure in the countries of Central Asia, the Caucasus and, even, Europe is a key component for the development of these national economies. Such projects enable China to unload their excess production capacity and deliver domestic goods to foreign markets. Not only large state-owned companies, but small and medium-sized businesses stand to gain as they provide services for complex projects implemented under the framework of the Belt and Road initiative. For example, since 2011 Chinese and European cargo trains have traveled through 28 cities in 11 European countries. Currently, there are more than 4,000 trips per year, and this number is expected to increase to 5,000 by 2020.

Energy

The Belt and Road initiative also takes into account the need to create new energy capacities – construction of interstate power lines, pipelines and gas pipeline systems, and the development of new energy-deposit fields.

One of the most promising projects in this area is Yamal LNG, the Russian liquified natural gas plant that was commissioned at the end of last year. The project’s budget is estimated at $27 billion with approximately $20 billion provided by Chinese banks, led by the Silk Road Foundation as the primary investor.

Additionally, the Power of Siberia gas pipeline is expected to be complete by the end of 2019 – it will enable Russia to supply China with 38 billion cubic meters of gas per year for 30 years. The pipeline, traversing the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), Irkutsk and Amur regions, will become the largest gas transportation system in Eastern Russia, thanks to over $70 billion in investment by Russia and China.

Tourism

According to online companies Ctrip and Alibaba, Chinese citizens took 129 million tourism trips abroad last year, spending a total of $118.4 billion. Implementation of the “One Belt, One Road” strategy will contribute to the influx of Chinese tourists to countries in the Eurasian Economic Union. Indicators of that influx are already growing. For example, last year a record number of Chinese tourists visited Russia – 1.5 million. However, it is important to note that the bulk of revenue generated as a result of  serving Chinese tourists goes to Chinese businesses, not Russian ones, as Chinese travelers tend to buy tour packages and order guide services from home, paying either in cash or through national Chinese payment systems.

Education

The Silk Road Economic Belt also fosters business cooperation between China and other Eurasian countries in the field of education. Today, 25% of all international students in Russia come from China. This indicates an especially high rate of international education collaboration with China as Russia’s share is a mere 2% of all Chinese students studying abroad (most still prefer European and American universities). China and the EEU countries are trying to solve the problem of a personnel shortage in the fields of economics, law and business, increasingly developing joint educational programs. For example, the Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO runs specialized “Understanding Russia” programmes for Chinese entrepreneurs on how to effectively conduct business in Russia. Over 300 business leaders from China have been trained in this programme. In addition, in November, 2018 the Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO and the business school of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology will launch “EMBA for Eurasia”, a cooperative programme designed for business leaders in Eurasia.

Innovations

The most widely-accepted theories of economic growth see technological development as the main driver of modern economic growth. Within the Belt and Road initiative, a special role is played by the sharing of technologies and technological innovations. As of today, 75 industrial parks are under construction as a part of the initiative.

In 2015, a Chinese holding bought 65% of YotaPhone, the Russian smartphone manufacturer. China also actively collaborates with other Eurasian countries on innovative projects in the fields of biotechnology, photonics, biomedicine, LED, food and consumer goods. In essence, it means that “One Belt, One Road” propels the industries of the Eurasian region to a new technological level. For example, several organizations from Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia are developing an innovative project to cool heavy-duty machinery – the so-called “double phase-shift cooling system” is being developed on a super-computer technology platform.

Work is being done in other areas as well, as seven belts are planned to be put in place, including financial and agricultural ones. In total, roughly one thousand different projects are expected to be implemented across different countries in the long term.

What are the barriers for implementing the strategy?

The Belt and Road is an initiative, not a project, meaning it has no defined goals or deadlines. China first mentioned its intention to establish the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century back in 2013, yet today, five years later, there is still no official information about the total number of projects or participating countries that should be involved, rendering the strategy somewhat amorphous. Unless the Belt and Road initiative is “institutionalized,” business can not use standard project and investment approaches, which makes it difficult to implement the overarching plan.

Furthermore, China is reducing investment in the Eurasian region. In 2013, the country allocated as much as $18 billion toward the project, but cut this amount down to $10 billion in 2016. If China had not invested in Iran’s nuclear program that year, this amount would have dropped to $5 billion. Such an approach makes predicting future investments challenging. The internal economic and political dynamics of China contribute to the challenge of forecasting the trajectory of the initiative – public and private investment banking institutions have begun to scrutinize these investment projects, as too much money was spent inefficiently or lost, drawing the attention of Chinese regulatory bodies.

Another important roadblock is the fact that some of the announced projects have not been a success. For example, the construction of a high-speed railway between Moscow and Kazan, which was originally designated as one of the priority projects for the Belt and Road, stalled. The construction of this Russian segment was supposed to be the first stage in building a railway between Moscow and Beijing, which was to be followed by an even more ambitious “Eurasia” railway project, connecting Beijing, Moscow and Berlin. Unfortunately, under current financial conditions, these projects are not economically viable, which halted their development at the feasibility study stage. This is a clear example of collaboration in which strategic ambitions outpace, or fail to take into account, the economic and investment feasibility of the Belt and Road projects.

Nevertheless, the initiative has emerged at the right time. At a time when protectionism is gaining momentum in international trade, China is driving an expansion of free market values, simplified customs and visa procedures, and the creation of transportation and logistics infrastructure that will ensure the quick and easy delivery of goods to new markets. This approach enables multilateral development at the domestic level and eliminates barriers to business that already seem archaic in the global world of the 21st century.

Head of China Unit of SKOLKOVO Business School, Representative in China and an Expert at EMBA for Eurasia by HKUST and SKOLKOVO programme

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East Asia

Time to play the Taiwan card

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At a time when the dragon is breathing fire, India must explore alternative tactics, perhaps establishment of formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan can be a landmark step

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The standoff on the Ladakh border between the Indian Army and the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) continues amid failing talks and casus belli measures being unleashed by the Chinese regime. While the union government and the armed forces make it clear that they will do whatever it takes to protect India’s sovereignty and integrity, precious little has been done on the foreign policy front. While India and its democratic allies which comprise the Quad security grouping declare their intent to form the ‘Asian NATO’, the Quad continues to suffer from indecisiveness which was pretty much evident when the Quad did not even issue a joint statement to condemn China at the foreign ministers meeting held last year, only America publicly called out China.

In such a situation, it is imperative that India explore alternate diplomatic and militaristic routes to tame the dragon.

Recognizing Taiwan

Establishing formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan after recognizing should be vigorously pursuing by South Block. Indo-Taiwan ties date back to the early 1950s when Chiang Kai Shek, the ex Chinese president and former head of state fled to the island of Formosa following the victory of Mao Zedong in the long drawn out Chinese civil war called on Nehru to establish and further ties with Formosa, however Nehru believing that Chiang was nothing but a “peanut” decided to ignore his call, choosing instead to concentrate on building ties with People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Seven decades on, plethora of changes has taken place on the foreign affairs front, while both China and India have developed considerably both militarily and economically the dragon has surpassed elephant to become an economic powerhouse in its own might. It has now embraced aggressiveness to enforce its 5th century vision of the ‘Middle Kingdom’. In such a situation providing legitimacy to the existence of Taiwan is a necessary first step.

Paradigm shift in policy

Establishing formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan will bring about a paradigm shift vis-à-vis India’s foreign policy. It will enforce the idea that liberal democracy is the last word in the battle of ideologies as Francis Fukuyama had visualized in his landmark book ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ and that there is no alternative to human rights and liberties, not even the Chinese model of ‘authoritarian development’. It will be the boldest step that any global leader has taken, not even the mighty US which has no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan has taken this step.

Recognizing Taiwan will entail a lot of benefits for the mandarins of India’s foreign policy regime- firstly, Taiwan is a robust democracy with a booming economy, it will prove to be an alternative to China albeit in a relatively less proportion, secondly, India can bolster the legitimacy as the leader of the democratic world at a time when the democratic institutions in the US-often regarded as the cradle of democracy has been undermined.

Thirdly, India can get the support of another powerful ally in its attempt to carve out a new supply chain alliance which India-Japan-Australia formalized recently. Fourthly, recognizing Taiwan will make it clear to China that India means some serious business and if the need arises then India will not back down from sending dedicated naval and air assets in the disputed South China Sea region to enforce freedom of navigation principle in the resource rich region. Lastly, the Quad security grouping will be institutionalized which in the near future can even be extended to include new members, it will be the first time that India will be a part of any dedicated military and economic alliance which will deter the aggression of the Chinese war machine in the strategic Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific Region.

Caveats remain

However the recognition may invite severe ramifications for India. China will be infuriated and can choose to ratchet up tensions with India. India must be extremely careful while dealing with China as China is our second largest bilateral trade partner and a key export partner of India with regard to raw materials and goods. According to a FICCI report, India imports more than 40% of several important goods like the API (Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients), television, chemicals, chips, textiles and many more.

The dragon will as a possible retaliatory measure can activate its propaganda machinery to wage psychological warfare with India. It can also activate its terror financing networks which for years remained a chronic internal security for India in the northeast of the country. China will also collaborate with its ‘iron brother’ Pakistan to try and deter India by intensifying terrorism in the Kashmir valley and elsewhere. Further, China can use its potent disinformation empire to try and peddle fake news about the credibility of India’s indigenous vaccines at a time when the light at the end of the tunnel of a pandemic stricken world has appeared.

Exercising caution

Keeping all the dangers in mind, the Modi government must keep national interests in mind. Despite all the risks, it must work with all the like- minded countries to take own the mighty dragon responsible for unleashing a deadly virus which has wrecked havoc on humanity. For the sake of the free world, India must take the hard step which will reinforce India’s position in cementing its place as the leader of the free world.

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Pro-Communism warping Hong Kong

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The latest turmoil in the Covid-ridden strata of mainland China is not servile to any pandemic, however, the issue has been one of the most queer and rare kinds, enough to be classified as one of the endemic issues in the global affairs. The tension at helm is the chaos following the announcement of a “New Security Law” by the Chinese regime which is being eyed as one of the monumental events of this decade; slicing off a sliver of attention from the deadly Corona virus that continues to exponentiate around the world in its second wave and sporadic variants.

The law that set out by the Chinese lawmakers back on 22nd May 2020, threatens the liberties of subversion and sedition enjoyed by the citizens of Hong Kong under a constitution. Simplistically named “Basic Law”, it aims to tame the country scaffolded by the “One country, Two systems” framework since the power handover by the former colony to China back in 1997. This act came around amidst strained economic relations between the two superpowers of the world; China and USA, each passing the baton in the blame game of who sustains the blood-crown of the catastrophe impending on the world courtesy of the lethal virus that engulfs every periphery in each continent on the globe. The matters seem complex at sight and a glimpse to the historical timeline of how riddled the relations were could hint at how strained they could reach.

The colony, known as ‘Hong Kong’ today, had been the battle ground, figuratively, to the major competitors of the 20th century: The Great Britain and China. The British dominated the colony for more than 150 years, tracing back to the late 19th century; leasing the territory for the span to morph it into the modernised metropolis marking it as the hub we know today. In 1997, an agreement was reached via an accord, ‘The Sino-British Joint Declaration‘ between the two sides. The treaty allowed Hong Kong a semi-autonomous status, that is, relaying self-sufficiency in all the national domains except in defence and foreign affairs. The allotted autonomy arches under the sovereignty of China until year 2047, henceforward melding into the mainland China as harkened by the Chinese hegemony over decades.

Despite of the granted protection of Hong Kong’s own legislation, borders and freedom of speech, the liberties have been trampled on by the Chinese government over the last couple of decades. A similar law abolishing the right to sedition was initiated in 2003 yet mass protests calling out up and about 50,000 citizens impeded the efforts that went futile and drastically ended up being shunned for good. The Communist party under the wings of Chinese president Xi Jinping have expounded further in tightening their talons on the city since 2012 as efforts were made to corrode the educational system of the country via meddling with the curriculum, biasing the foundation to hail Chinese communism. These acts were proactive reactions to the advances of the United States forging relations with the city. China even tried to manipulate the elections in 2014, tampering with the selection their Chief Executive leading to a 3-month long protest known as the ‘Umbrella movement’ and ultimate downfall of Hong Kong’s autonomous political system.

The security law falls in tandem to the events of 2019; the legislation allowing the convicts from Hong Kong to be extradited in China causing a rave of fear of a massive tactical crackdown of the Anti-communist activists of Hong Kong, sighting it just as ruse to underwhelm the right of sedition of the people of Hong Kong. The Law passed by the parliament notions to only one thing; The ultimate end to Hong Kong. The lawmakers in China, hailing from the National People’s Congress (NPC), sight this move as extricating a threat to the national security and stability of the country while many of the pro-activists in Hong Kong deem the law as betrayal, accusing China of walking back on its promise of high-degree autonomy and freedom of speech, marking it as the final straw, the last struggle before the country could override the laws in the city and indirectly, transition from the entity holding the right to veto the laws to now gripping the law altogether.

Despite of the speculated protests to spark like the history dictates, many of the sage minds predict either a relatively dormant demonstrations or none at all, having a tint of finality in the statement shote the protests are “high stake in risk and repression”. The recent arrest of the leading activists of Hong Kong standing up to voice their disdain to the separatist efforts of China further solidify the notion. Despite of a global condemnation to the new law, the efforts of China resume to subdue any opposition in Honk Kong no matter how sparse. Foreseeing no way out for Hong Kong this time; the Covid-19 paralysis the United States in its own crisis and the legislature inclining towards the Chinese pressure, a complete erasure of Hong Kong is sighted and could not be restrained- for better or for worse.

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East Asia

The Belligerent Chinese Diplomacy and Its Failure

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The Chinese media has recently reported of Xi Jinping writing a letter to George Schultz the former chairman of Starbucks, the US coffee giant. In the letter, he has requested Schultz to play a positive role in advancing the US-China relations. While head of a major state writing letter to big corporate heads is not a common but not an unusual development either, this letter from Jinping should be seen in a relevant context. It indicates a certain amount of desperation and difficulty of China in its dealings with the US.

It suggests that after months of aggressive posturing and verbal duels against Trump, the State Department and Pentagon, China is now cosying up to the new Joe Biden administration. Further, it also means the recent Chinese aggressive posturing, wolf diplomacy has failed to bring in the desired results and that the Xi Jinping-led CCP is under more pressure now to soft-pedal the recent acrimonious ties between the two.

The year 2020 had been a very disappointing and calamitous year for the world. And Corona pandemic could well be cited as the most important reason. While the world as a whole has struggled to fight this unknown enemy individually as well as collectively, one country that has been in the limelight, for all the wrong reasons, been China.

Foreign policy and diplomacy is all about protecting and promoting the perceived national interests of a country. While achieving its objectives, the country tries to create and maintain a favourable image in the international community. The Chinese diplomatic endeavour since the ascension of Xi Jinping has been starkly opposite. From the most likely origin of Corona virus, to rebuking leaders, diplomats and media of other countries, China has been trying to create a new diplomatic norm, a new normal where none of the countries would dare criticising China, through political discourse, media or any other way while silently acceding to its territorial expansionary designs.

There  have  been  unusually  vitriolic  reactions  by  Chinese  diplomats against seemingly innocuous comments or actions by governments, politicians, diplomats  or  media  in  various  countries.  A  very  rational  request  by  the Australian government to initiate investigations by the international community into the genesis of Corona virus, made China so furious that apart from making crude undiplomatic comments, it even created a virtual political, diplomatic and trade war against the country. Critical comment by certain politicians in Brazil and Japan, led Chinese diplomats to publicly issue personalised attacks against them.

The Chinese ambassador to Sweden has went on to lambast the country’s media in most rustic manner. No wonder, in the last two years, he has been summoned to the Swedish foreign ministry an unprecedented 40 times and there have been demands from native politicians for his expulsion. In India, a country that is being seen as the closest political and military rival by China but is scared of admitting it publicly, the diplomats have kept on reminding the government and media not to play the so-called Tibet card or must adhere to One-China policy by not getting close to Taiwan, have repeatedly been ignored by the government as well as the media.

No wonder, a recent Pew Research study has revealed that globally China has lost a huge amount of goodwill. A significantly very high majority of natives in nine of the advanced economies like the US, UK, Germany, Australia, South Korea, Sweden, Netherlands think negatively of  China. Australia (81%), UK (74%), Sweden (85%), Netherlands (73%) show a very high increase in the negative perception against China, very recently and that has affected their politico-commercial relations too.

With the US, the Trump administration acting aggressively in the backdrop of the November Presidential elections, the Chinese actions of challenging the lone superpower has not helped the country anyway. On the contrary, US has become more supportive of Taiwan, politically as well as militarily, making it even more difficult or virtually impossible to China to even think  of  occupying  the  territory  forcibly  in  near  future.  India  that  had maintained a cautious approach towards Taiwan till recently, have started enhancing political and commercial relations with the country.

In Asia, its aggressive military designs against India’s northern borders has had a very rude awakening for China. Used to a timid Indian approach since 1950s under Nehru, it never expected the aggressive Indian response that even put its own military positions in Moldo and other strategic positions vulnerable. To further undermine political and military calculations, its adversaries in South China seas like Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines today are in advance negotiations with India to secure sophisticated missiles and armaments.

A very significant strategic development in the form of QUAD has taken the preliminary shape and that whenever gets in a concrete form, could well portend an ominous future for China, politically and militarily. The belligerent Chinese behaviour, especially since the onset of Corona virus has brought India, Australia, the US and Japan very close. With talks of Vietnam, Philippines and others in south-east Asia joining it later, the future of a QUAD could well be a security nightmare for China.

In the economic realm, India has reacted sharply too. Being a huge market for Chinese cheap goods and scores of apps till recently, India has not only banished  hundreds  of  apps  but  has  also  been  working  on  a  mechanism  to regulate, control and even stop imports in a number of segments from China. A big share of enormous infrastructural contracts in telecommunications, roads, ports, airports and railways in India too, have become difficult for Chinese companies. And taking a leaf out of India, the US and other countries too, are making it difficult for Chinese organisations to secure big contracts in their respective countries.

Over the next few years, China is going to lose a huge chunk of its popular and big market in India while territorially too, it has failed to make any significant gains.  Strategically what China  wished to see was  countries like Japan, India, Australia, Vietnam, US all having disputes with it dealing individually  rather  than  getting  together  and  forming  a  coordinated  and collective political, economic and strategic response against it.  And the very opposite has happened. There have been greater and collective political, military and economic coordination amongst all these countries today and most of the strategies are aimed against one country, China.

All these developments including Xi’s letter to Schultz, indicate one point very  certainly  that  Chinese  belligerence  has  backfired  hugely.  It  needs  to reorient its diplomacy and political behaviour significantly and if it fails to do so, its position in the emerging post-Covid geopolitical order could be anything but that of an emerging superpower.

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