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Italy and the Belt & Road Initiative

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There has been a growing scepticism with regard to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project in many quarters, due to the lack of transparency with regards to terms and conditions as well as the economic implications for countries which are part of the project. A report published by the Center for Global Development (CGD) Washington in April 2018 flagged 8 countries (including Pakistan, Maldives, Laos and Djibouti where the level of debts are unsustainable.

Apart from red flag raised by a number of researchers, the removal of Pro-China leadership in countries like Malaysia, Maldives and Sri Lanka has also resulted in the problems of the BRI project, and China’s economic dealings (which are clearly skewed in favour of Beijing) with other countries drawing more attention.

The most vocal critic of China’s economic links has been by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. During a visit to China in August 2018, Mahathir not known to mince his words while alluding to China’s trade relations with poorer countries could lead to ‘a new version of colonialism’. Mahathir later on denied that his statement was targeted at China or the BRI. The fact is that the Malaysian Prime Minister did scrap projects estimated at well over 20 Billion USD (which includes a rail project, East Coast Link as well as two gas pipelines).

Top officials in the Trump Administration, including US Vice President Mike Pence, have also been critical of the BRI project for a variety of reasons. The major criticism from US policy makers has been the economic ‘unsustainability’ of the project as well as the point that the project is skewed in favour of China.

Italy to join BRI

As the debate carries on with regard to the BRI,no body can ignore the fact, that Italy (the world’s 8th largest economy) is likely to become the only G7 country to join the BRI.

During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Italy, later this month (March 22-24) a Memorandum of Understanding MOU, and could be signed. Senior officials in the government have been cautious, and have emphasised on the fact, that the MOU would be ‘non-binding’. Commenting on the status of the MOU, Undersecretary in Italy’s economic development ministry, Michele Geraci stated:

 ‘…it is possible that it will be concluded in time for [Xi’s] visit.”

Geraci a Sinophile, who has spent a fair amount of time in China, is said to be driving the ruling coalition’s policy (The Five Star Movement (M5S) and right leaning Lega joined hands to form a government in June 2018) towards China.

Italian PM, Giueseppe Conte while addressing a seminar, in Genoa, made the point, that while joining BRI would open new opportunities and horizons for Italy, Rome was likely to be cautious, and would not do anything in haste.

Current state of Italy-China relations

If one were to look at the state of China-Italy bilateral relations. China-Italy bilateral trade reached nearly 50 Billion USD in 2017. China is Italy’s largest trading partner in Asia. It would be pertinent to point out that ties between both countries are not restricted to the economic sphere.  There has also been a rise in Chinese tourists visiting Italy (over 1.5 million annually). Even in the sphere of education, linkages between both countries are rising. As of 2017, there were over 6,000 students Italian students in China and nearly 20,000 Chinese students in Italy.

The current government has given immense attention to China, and there have been 3 high level visits ever since the ruling coalition took over the reigns last June (senior officials who visited include – Italy’s Finance Minister Giovanni Tria, Geraci, and Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio — who also holds the charge of economic development minister). The Italian PM is also likely to attend the second Belt and Road Forum to be held in Beijing in April 2019.

The clear objective of becoming part of BRI, according to senior officials, is to get access for its goods and to also leverage its geo-political location within Europe.  During his visit to China in September 2018, the Italian Deputy PM had spoken in favour of Italy joining the project. The Deputy PM who had gone to attend the 17th Western China International Fair had made the point that Italy was identifying the possible avenues for participation in the project, and that the G7 country could benefit immensely, if it successfully harnessed it’s own economic and geographical strengths.

In  2018,the inaugural meeting of Italy’s China Task Force was held in Rome (this is headed by Michele Geraci). The key objectives of this task force are; to give an impetus to bilateral economic cooperation (to give a boost to Chinese investments in Italy, giving a push to Italian exports to China, cooperation in Research and Development) and also to explore how Italian companies could seek financing under the BRI initiative.  Italy has also been seeking to expand cooperation with China in Africa (the argument is that African growth will help in putting a check on immigration to Italy). Interestingly, former PM Paolo Gentiloni had urged EU and US to invest more in Africa, and to counter China’s growing influence.

Scepticism with regard to Italy-China economic relations

While the government has unequivocally spoken out in favour of this decision. Many argue, that Italy will need to develop it’s own infrastructure – especially the rail system, if it needs to benefit significantly from BRI. Given Italy’s current fiscal situation, too much investment into infrastructure seems highly unlikely. With China having invested in Piraeus (Greece) it is important that the Venice Port becomes more competitive. This will require not just economic investments, but strategic thinking.

There are those who also argue, that the current Italian government has given too much attention to Beijing, at the cost of relations with other countries. The China policy, it is argued will also have an adverse impact on EU’s common China policy

Unlike other Western countries, Italy has not given a very strong reaction on the Huawei controversy

Italian Deputy Prime Minister was quick to state that “We are in no way tilting the geopolitical axis,”

Italian PM also made it clear, that while Italy will join the BRI, it will ensure that this benefits both, and that EU norms and values are not forgotten.

It is argued, that by reaching out to Euro skeptics in EU, Beijing is trying to create divisions within the bloc. Countries like Hungary and Greece, which are being increasingly dependent upon China, have taken a different stance from other EU countries on issues such as The South China Sea and Human Rights violations.

The EU has been critical of the BRI..

It has even come up with its own version of BRI. In September 2018, EU’s strategy for connecting Europe and Asia. Senior EU officials including High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini made it clear, that EU’s strategy was to enhance connect between Europe and Asia, and to ensure it was beneficial for both. The project would also take into account financial and environmental sustainability.

US reaction to Italy joining BRI

US also took note of Italy joining BRI. As expected, the US was critical of Italy’s decision to join the BRI. A White House National Security Council spokesperson, Garrett Marquis in a media interview stated:

“We view BRI as a ‘made by China, for China’ initiative,”

As mentioned earlier, senior members of the Trump Administration too have flagged the shortcomings of the BRI project and how the dependence of certain countries in Asia and Africa is rising.

Conclusion

It is important for countries within the EU as well as other countries sceptical of the BRI to adopt a more pragmatic stance towards Italy’s decision. One must also keep in mind the fact, that while speaking about signing an MOU with China it has left room for manouevre. It is also important for countries vary of increasing Chinese influence to themselves stand up for liberal values, and greater economic integration. One of the reasons for Beijing’s increasing economic clout, is increasing the inward looking economic policies being adopted by a number of countries – not just the US. At the January 2017, World Economic Forum (WEF) Chinese President Xi Jinping had warned against the increasing scepticism with regard to globalisation. Said the Chinese President:

‘Some people blame economic globalization for the chaos in our world. Economic globalization was once viewed as the treasure cave found by Ali Baba in the Arabian nights, but now it has become the Pandora’s Box.’

Very few leaders have spoken up on this issue forcefully enough. Similarly, if the US has flagged problems of the BRI it should be willing to invest in an alternative narrative. So far even if one were to look about the narrative of a ‘Free and Fair’ Indo-Pacific, Washington has not made significant financial commitment (In July 2018, the Trump administration did make a commitment of 113 Million USD for areas like energy, digital economy and infrastructure). While it is believed that the US IDFC (International Development Finance Corporation) created through BUILD (Better Utilisation of Investment leading to development act)  may be able to give the much required boost to some important connectivity projects, but it’s total budget estimated at 60 Billion USD pales in comparison to China’s budget.

The only country which has attempted to put up a cohesive alternative to BRI is Japan’s ‘Partnership for Quality Infrastructure’ (PQI). Japan along with Asian Development Bank will be providing over 100 Billion USD (50 Billion from Japan and 50 Billion from ADB) for infrastructure in Asia. Japan’s economic presence in Africa is also steadily rising, though it is assisting Africa in a number of other areas like health, education through Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) ( which is co-hosted by the Government of Japan, The World Bank, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the African Union Commission and the United Nations).

While it is true, that globalization may not be perfect and some scholars went overboard, but there is also no denying the point that populist policies which have favoured economic isolationism may have helped in achieving political successes, but their limitations are beginning to show in the economic sphere. It is for this reason, that even leaders like Mahathir who are critical of Chinese projects have stated, that if he were to chose between China and an ‘unpredictable US’ he would choose the latter.  Italy on its part must be cautious and should astutely balance its own interests and not allow Beijing to have a free run. Differences with the EU, should not lead to Italy and other countries becoming excessively dependent upon China.

There is no denying the fact, that Italy’s acceptance of the BRI has important implications which go well beyond EU.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India

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How Romania’s battles over corruption hamstrung economic progress

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When Romania took over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in January, news coverage in Western Europe mostly focused on the tensions between Brussels and Bucharest over the latter’s judicial reforms. Jean-Claude Juncker publicly called Romania’s ability to fulfil its presidential duties into question; the European Commission, meanwhile, accused the ruling Social Democrats (PSD) of backsliding on corruption.

Since then, however, Romania has executed its presidential duties without a hitch, hosting European leaders for a major EU summit in Sibiu on May 10th that earned plaudits from top EU officials like Donald Tusk. In hindsight, has the overarching media narrative ignored important developments inside Romania? Does the Sibiu summit demonstrate that Romania has regained its footing as one of Europe’s most dynamic economies?

Economic growth no longer extraordinary

Romania’s economy, while still growing at an impressive rate, has slowed down from the remarkable rates the country was registering as recently as 2017— when its 7% expansion outpaced nearly all European peers. 2018 saw growth rates of 4%, while estimates point to 3.5% for 2019.

Since it joined the European Union in 2007, Romania’s per capita national output doubled to roughly 60 percent of the Eurozone average. Record lows in unemployment led to double-digit average wage growth over the last four years. But the recent downwards trend has left many wondering whether the Romanian economy will ever resume its previous rate of development.

Is the DNA’s aggressive prosecution scaring off foreign investors?

Bucharest’s economic slowdown is due to a variety of factors, from tightened global financial conditions to falling birth rates. Foreign investors, however, may also be skittish thanks to the long-running battle between Romania’s political establishment and its controversial anti-corruption agency, the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA). Under the leadership of agency head Laura Kövesi, the DNA undertook (by its own count) 2,396 investigations targeting Romanian magistrates between 2014 and 2018. Kövesi’s tenure saw over 1,000 figures from the country’s political and business circles convicted for corruption.

The DNA’s swathes of indictments targeting Romania’s leading political figures, with charges ranging from forgery to money laundering, have certainly played into the country’s reputation for corruption. That image has hamstrung Romania’s ability to attract foreign capital and investment, from Europe and beyond.

EU leaders, meanwhile, have heaped praise on the DNA’s stack of convictions, holding the anti-corruption agency up as a model for other European countries to emulate. Concerns have mounted, however, that the DNA is abusing its power and reverting to communist-era investigative practice.

Long lists of convictions—but at what cost?

Hiding behind the DNA’s unusually-high conviction rates were potential due process violations, including lengthy pre-trial detainment periods equivalent to imprisonment before having been sentenced by a court of law, or otherwise threatening suspects that a lack of cooperation could see their family members prosecuted. Increased scrutiny of these violations may help explain why the number of cases resulting in acquittals rose markedly, from 12.2% in 2017 to 36.3% in 2018.

Some of the DNA’s most prominent targets have drawn parallels between its behaviour and that of Romania’s Communist-era security services. Alina Bica, who formerly served as chief prosecutor for organised crime and was arrested in 2014, described her experience with the DNA as “like in the 1950s when the communists came. You get called an enemy of the state, you get put in the truck…they damage your family.” Kövesi reportedly made a personal visit to the Supreme Council of Magistrates to persuade them to sign off on Bica’s arrest, while Bica’s husband was targeted with charges of tax evasion and her lawyer was also detained.

Many of those singled out by the DNA accuse the body of pursuing political or personal vendettas. Bica, for example, claimed the charges against her stemmed from her 2012 investigation into Transgaz, where Kövesi’s brother served as a director. PSD spokespeople have suggested treasurer Mircea Drăghici, currently under investigation for embezzling party funds, is being targeted as part of the lead-up to this month’s European elections.

Troubling collaboration with the intelligence services

Recent revelations about the DNA’s investigative tactics have given new life to comparisons between today’s anti-corruption czars and the communist-era Securitate secret police. Earlier this year, Romania’s Constitutional Court ruled secret protocols between DNA prosecutors and the country’s domestic intelligence agency, the SRI, were unconstitutional. The Constitutional Court concluded that the SRI, successor to the Securitate, had signed agreements allowing the intelligence agency to circumvent the authority of prosecutors in criminal investigations, while simultaneously conducting over 20,000 wiretaps a year on behalf of the DNA—an excessive violation of privacy.

The investigation by the Constitutional Court culminated in Kövesi’s removal from her position in 2018. Kövesi herself has been indicted on charges of corruption and abuse of office, relating to allegations by Romanian businessman Sebastian Ghita that Kövesi strongarmed him into paying for the repatriation of a fugitive from Indonesia. Romanian police claim they footed the bill, but criminal proceedings are ongoing. The former prosecutor nevertheless retains many fans in Brussels. Allies in the European Parliament want to name her to the new position of EU Chief Prosecutor despite the ongoing investigation in Romania.

Increased transparency

With the steady release of DNA documents to the newly formed Special Section for the Investigation of Crimes Committed by Magistrates and the National Union of Judges in Romania, which both operate independently of the DNA, efforts to increase transparency in Romanian governance may soon move beyond the bitter political rivalries that undermined Romania’s political stability and global reputation.

While the Sibiu summit was a political success, the economy is also regaining its footing. Consumer confidence is recovering, with better prospects for future savings. Wage growth remains impressive while lending activity continues to expand. And CFA Romania, an association of investment professionals, released a report predicting Romanian economic activity will improve over the next 12 months. It seems that, despite the corruption battles of the past several years, both Romanian businesses and consumers remain optimistic about their future prospects.

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Any signs of a chill between France and Germany?

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The past few months have seen many signs of growing friction and divisions between the two European superpowers, Germany and France. Before the February vote on changes to the EU Third Energy Package, meant to expand the European Commission’s power to regulate Europe’s electricity and natural gas market, France opposed, until the very last moment, Germany’s position on the issue. In April, Paris and Berlin failed to agree on how much more time Britain should be given to decide on its withdrawal from the EU. During the recent presidential elections in Ukraine, France and Germany supported various candidates. Moreover, they are equally divided on who will be the new head of the European Commission. What is happening in relations between members of the “European tandem”?

During the latter half of 2018, it looked as if relations between the EU’s two powerhouses were reaching a new strategic level. In a joint statement made in Meseberg in June, Berlin and Paris outlined their shared vision of the European Union’s future development. In late August, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas simultaneously spoke out about a new role for Europe to make it “sovereign and strong.” During their informal meeting in Marseille in September, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel agreed on a coordinated response to the main challenges facing Europe and on concerted work on shaping the “agenda for Europe.”

In November, the two leaders spoke in favor of creating a “European army,” “real Pan-European armed forces” capable of defending Europe. And in January of this year, they inked a broader cooperation accord in Aachen, which commentators described as a “new big step” in bringing the two countries closer together. The Treaty of Aachen covers new areas of political cooperation, including common projects and commitments in the fields of defense and international relations.

Just a month later, however, the Franco-German rapprochement hit a snag over two strategic projects worth billions of euros, namely the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and trade relations with the United States. Here the interests of Paris and Berlin differ the most. Underscoring the seriousness of the rift, Emmanuel Macron canceled a planned trip to a security conference in Munich in what many commentators described as a “demonstrative” move. As for the issue of completing the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, the compromise reached by France and Germany and approved by the European Parliament, imposed on Berlin “a formula that the German government wanted to avoid.”

Regarding the issue of trade relations with the United States, it wasn’t until mid-April that Brussels collectively managed to prevail over France, which had been blocking the start of pertinent negotiations with Washington.  Any delay may cost the German automakers multi-billion dollar fines from the United States. If the French succeed in delaying the start of negotiations, Germany, which is already experiencing a sharp slowdown in economic growth, may end up the loser again.

France’s sudden move left the German media guessing whether Macron’s actions were dictated by his displeasure about Berlin’s “slow response” to his initiatives, or by Donald Trump’s threat to sanction companies involved in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, including the French concern Engie. Or maybe Macron had resorted to this “show of force” in a bid to strengthen his hand amid the conflict with the “yellow jackets” and growing tensions with Italy?

Indeed, the statement made in Meseberg and the treaty signed in Aachen could have proved too much of a compromise for Macron, if not a serious blow to his ambitions. According to critics, “the Treaty of Aachen dodges the most sensitive topics characteristic of modern Europe.” Including migration and political unification of Europe – something Macron is so eager to accomplish. The treaty makes no mention of a common EU tax and financial policy, while the issue of creating a single economic space is spelled out declaratively at best. Angela Merkel essentially emasculated virtually all of Macron’s initiatives pertaining to the financial and economic reform of the EU and the Eurozone. Emmanuel Macron has been out to become one of the EU’s leaders, or even its sole leader, ever since he became president in 2017. All the more so following Britain’s exit from the bloc and amid the ebbing political authority and the planned resignation by 2021 of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, once the informal leader of a united Europe.

The current political situation in France is also calling for more decisive actions by President Macron. To ensure at least a relative success in the upcoming European elections, he needs to enlist the support not only of the traditional left-and right-centrists, but possibly of some representatives of the new European right too. Whether or not Angela Merkel stands down in 2021, or after the elections to the European Parliament (as has been rumored since April), Emmanuel Macron essentially remains the only top-level proponent of greater European integration. (Unless Merkel ultimately moves to the head of the European Commission, of course). With Macron eyeing a second presidential term in 2022, the advancement of the modernization model for France depends directly on the success of the European project. And here any significant changes in the European Union “mainly depend on the position of France’s privileged partner – Germany.”

All this means that Macron needs a breakthrough now that Berlin is going through a “complicated power transit” with Merkel having resigned as the head of the CDU and preparing to hand her post as Federal Chancellor over to a successor. Therefore, she is now taking her time and, according to her successor as CDU leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, is holding out for a new vector in the development of the European project as “the common denominator of the distribution of political forces after the elections.” Does this mean that Berlin’s is staking on the success of its candidate in the ongoing struggle for the next president of the European Commission? For the first time ever, the CDU and the CSU have managed to nominate a common candidate who has “good chances” of heading the EU’s executive body.

Meanwhile, Berlin is facing an intractable dilemma. Since 1949, “avoiding by all means situations necessitating a hard choice between France and the United States has been a key principle of German foreign policy.” This approach “survived all governments and coalitions, and was maintained after the reunification of Germany.” Under the present circumstances, however, remaining firmly committed to the transatlantic relationship threatens to further destabilize the European integration project, which is now seen as being key to Germany’s future. Simultaneously, a course aimed at minimizing damage from the policy of external powers that threatens the fundamental German interests might necessitate radical and ambitious geopolitical maneuvers that would almost inevitably revive the Europeans’ and Americans’ historical fears of “German instincts.”

US and British analysts already worry that “the

[geopolitical]

shackles that are voluntarily accepted [by Germany] can be thrown off.” They also wonder how long it will take before new generations of Germans want to restore their country’ full state sovereignty.

In Germany itself, promotion of such slogans have already given the Alternative for Germany party (AfD) the third largest fraction in the Bundestag. A major paradox of the current European and German policy is that Berlin’s activity or passivity is equally detrimental to the Pan-European project and could eventually lead to the EU’s fragmentation and even disintegration.

However, the Franco-German “tandem” is already being dogged with contradictions and compromises, which are highly unpopular among many in the German establishment. The cautious response by many EU members to the latest joint geopolitical initiatives of Berlin and Paris, gave Germany more reasons to fear that Macron’s global ambitions could exacerbate the differences that already exist in the EU. Many in Germany have long suspected Macron of wishing to make the EU instrumental in his foreign policy aspirations.

Some experts still believe that at the end of the day the current chill between Germany and France may turn out to be just a sign of the traditional “propensity for taking independent political decisions.” The sides are sizing each other up to see “who will be setting the rules of the roadmap in the future.”  Also, Paris’s tougher stance towards Berlin may be a tactical ploy, a pre-election maneuver to “hijack” part of the agenda from the “national populists” of Central, Eastern and Southern Europe where many people are not happy about the German “diktat.”

Emmanuel Macron has proved once and again his ability to ride the wave of public discontent with certain issues. His Plan for Europe, published in early March, carefully avoids any mention of France’ and Germany’s leading role in advancing EU reforms.

On the other hand, the foreign policy of the leading European powers has a long history, and long-term geopolitical considerations continue to play a significant role. Germany, for one, has traditionally been looking for a counterweight to the Anglo-Saxons, while France – to German dominance in Europe. As a result, the search by Paris and Berlin for common points of political contact is now turning into intense efforts to find the “lowest common denominator.” The overall impression is that we will only be able to see a greater deal of certainty in relations between the two countries after the results of elections to the European Parliament have been summed up.  The distribution of roles both within the “European tandem” and in the EU as a whole depends on which political forces – pro-Macron or pro-Merkel, the Europeans will vote for.

 First published in our partner International Affairs

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Sino-Italian Partnership and European Concern

Mohamad Zreik

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A crucial moment in modern European history is that the European doors opened to Chinese President Xi Jinping in Italy during a reception that is like receiving kings and leaders. Once again China is moving west despite all the American warnings from the Chinese dragon coming from the East, and this time it was Italy’s accession to the One Belt One Road initiative.

The Chinese president said that his country’s relationship with Italy is excellent and that the Sino-Italian common interests are the basis for a fruitful future. The Italian prime minister said that Italy is a key partner in the Belt and Road initiative and that trade between Italy and China should increase. But all this positive atmosphere is met with dissatisfaction and fear by the United States and some Italians, which is totally opposed to dealing with China because it considers it a threat to its national security and therefore to the national security of Italy.

In order to prevent espionage or transfer of experience by the Chinese, it was agreed to establish an oversight authority. In an expression of US rejection of the agreement, White House official Garrett Marquis wrote last week on Twitter that Rome “does not need” to join the “New Silk Road”. In an effort to ease US concerns, Luigi Di Maio said before taking part in an Italian-Chinese economic forum in Rome that the relationship will not go beyond trade, as we remain allies of the United States, and remain in NATO and the European Union.

The Italian economy, which is in a recession, is pushing the Italian government to form an alliance with China. Many European policy experts consider Italy to be a Trojan horse for China in the European region, which will have political implications for the future of the EU and the future of the Italian-American relationship; especially as the Chinese giant Huawei is expected to participate in the launch of the technology “G5” mobile phones in Italy.

China’s opening up is not limited to Italy, but to Europe as a whole. In the last visit by the Chinese president to Europe, he moved from Italy to Monaco and Paris and met President Emmanuel Macron, who is trying to open up to Beijing. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has opposed the Sino-Italian rapprochement with signing the agreement to join the Belt and Road Initiative, so that Italy will be the first G7 country to join the initiative.

Beijing is interested in investing in Italian ports, including the port of Trieste on the Adriatic, to boost its exports to Europe. Italy seeks to balance trade with China. According to official data, trade between the two countries grew by 9.2% compared to 2016, reaching 42 billion euros. Italy managed to cut its trade deficit with China by 1.37 billion euros, increasing exports to Beijing by 22.2%, while imports rose to 28.4 billion euros, an increase of 4% compared to 2016.

But the most important issue remains the weak Italian economy, which will survive under Chinese debt, and the Sri Lankan experience proves that China is dealing with countries with economic interests. So, will the European gateway withstand the Chinese economic giant, or will it be a Chinese economic and political region in the future?

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