Since coming to power in 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping has directed a more active foreign policy and advocated for China to play a larger role in global governance. Last year, China chaired the Hangzhou G20 Summit and ratified the Paris Agreement on climate change. This year, China held an international cooperation forum on the Belt and Road Initiative and in September will convene the ninth BRICS summit in Xiamen. Amid strong anti-globalization sentiments in Europe and the U.S., there is a debate over what Xi’s aims and intentions are in his effort to build new Chinese multilateral mechanisms for global governance, such as the Asian Infrastructural Investment Bank, and reform existing institutions
Over the course of this year, the world has seen the United States step back from its role in global governance and walk away from deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris Climate Agreement. The retreat has raised questions about how the United States will respond to global crises escalating around the world. From violent extremism to displaced refugees, 2017 has seen far-reaching strife and calamity still to be addressed in 2018. Against this backdrop, China is making further inroads in expanding economically and asserting itself in global affairs. At the same time, China is hesitant to play a leadership role in areas where the United States is retreating and has to contend with ongoing disputes in its own backyard, including North Korea. What might the world look like in the year ahead in terms of hotspots of conflicts and how should governments and institutions tackle pressing crises?
With his inaugural visit to the Asia-Pacific region taking place just two weeks after President Xi Jinping’s elevation at the 19th Party Congress, President Donald Trump’s stop in China will be among the most consequential. The United States would like to partner more closely with China on pressing issues like addressing the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. At the same time, the Trump administration has expressed concerns about China’s respect for the international rules-based order and discriminatory Chinese trade and economic policies. During Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the United States in 2015, much attention was placed on agreements made by the two leaders on cybersecurity and commitments on South China Sea policy. Less well known is that the two nations signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to designate funding toward cooperation on international development. The agreement serves as a guiding framework for curbing global poverty through cooperation on issues like food security, public health, and humanitarian assistance and disaster response.
The United States has begun modernizing its nuclear program even as the Trump administration continues to inject new uncertainties into the future of U.S. nuclear policy and the U.S.-China nuclear and strategic security relationship. Efforts to maintain strategic stability between Washington and Beijing are also facing challenges from U.S. allies in the region. Japan worries that a stable U.S.-China nuclear relationship would embolden China to take more aggressive military action against Japan and other regional actors. South Korea has also expressed concerns over how the U.S.-China relationship may impact U.S. deterrence and security guarantees for South Korea. The United States has long played a key role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but President Trump has called NATO “obsolete” and criticized other members for not paying their fair share in military spending. The future of NATO and U.S. alliances in the region could hang in the balance as the Trump administration shifts focus to the “America first” agenda. At the same time, elections in France, the Netherlands, and Germany are also putting a strain on the EU as populist candidates gain more ground among voters. While European heads of state have expressed hope that key players like U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis will help preserve the transatlantic alliance, China could benefit from a U.S. retreat. It is promoting its Belt and Road Initiative, and some European countries have thus far been receptive to the deals offered.
The Middle East has historically been a strong focus of U.S. foreign policy; China, as part of its rise as a global power, is increasingly looking to grow its economic engagement in the region. But questions remain regarding the ability of the two countries to cooperate in the Middle East. While the United States reviews its policy in the region, the Trump administration has vocalized strong positions on issues such as the Iran nuclear deal and even taken military actions on Syria. At the same time, China is focusing on promoting its Belt and Road Initiative in the Middle East and continues to make technology investments in countries like Israel.
China and Russia have established closer ties under the leadership of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, forging large-scale energy and economic ties, conducting joint naval exercises, and signing treaties to reaffirm their strategic partnership. While world leaders hoped the United States and Russia would focus on areas in which to cooperate in the post-Cold War era, more emphasis has been placed on competition. Rhetoric from U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, though, has renewed discussions about a possible improvement of U.S.-Russia relations that has the potential to shift the great power dynamics.
“Traditionally, China and Pakistan have cooperated closely at the strategic and political levels. Now the two nations are making efforts to expand their bilateral collaboration economically as well. The construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a milestone that signifies this shift.”Over the past few years, security tensions in the Asia-Pacific have increased, raising the question of how to ensure continued strategic stability between the world’s great powers. This region is home to five nuclear states—China, Russia, India, Pakistan, and the United States—in addition to nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran.
U.S. government’s Asia policy is deeply uncertain. While North Korea continues to carry out more sophisticated nuclear tests and tensions escalate in the South China Sea, U.S.-China cooperation is more important than ever for regional stability in the Asia-Pacific. However, a growing number of cyber disputes is challenging the relationship between the two major powers. How will these foreign policy issues in Asia be perceived and addressed by the Trump administration? The Western Pacific is experiencing a fundamental and potentially destabilizing military and economic power transition driven primarily by China’s economic and military rise and a corresponding relative decline in American power. Efforts by the United States or China to secure future predominance will prove futile and dangerous, given a host of security, economic, and diplomatic factors. Instead, creating a stable de facto balance of power is necessary and feasible for both countries. This shift could take the form of a more durable balance that would necessitate major regional changes that would be difficult to achieve, or a more feasible but less stable balance involving more modest adjustments. The incremental, conditional process this would entail involves developing domestic consensus, securing allied and friendly support, deepening U.S.-China dialogue, and achieving interlinked changes in several existing regional security policies.
A highly stable balance would necessitate substantial progress on several security hotspots, including the creation of a unified, largely nonaligned Korean Peninsula, a demilitarized Taiwan Strait, and militarily limited, jointly developed East and South China Seas. It would also encompass a more open economic environment characterized by an inclusive, region-wide trade and investment agreement. A more attainable though less stable balance instead would involve joint efforts to sustain a regional free trade and investment system short of a comprehensive regional trade agreement, as well as shared understandings regarding potential crisis contingencies on the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan. The magnitude and scope of relative military and economic strength between the major powers of the region are decisive in determining the pace, scale, and intensity of security competitions. Delaying or futilely pursuing either Chinese or American predominance will put the region at greater risk. The most stable and preferable outcome would involve major changes to volatile regional hotspots, whereas a more modest vision would be more feasible albeit less stable.
China will almost certainly manage to significantly increase its economic and military capabilities vis-à-vis the United States and its allies. Moreover, Washington and Beijing handle volatile regional issues very differently, and their respective offense-oriented escalatory military doctrines are likely to persist under existing conditions, increasing the likelihood of severe crises. Key U.S. allies will probably remain unwilling and unable to compensate for America’s relative decline. Last year, China and the EU celebrated forty years of diplomatic relations. The EU’s leading foreign policy official, Federica Mogherini, visited Beijing for the first time and advocated greater EU engagement in Asia. Chinese President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, traveled to the UK and later hosted state visits from Germany and France. Much of this diplomatic activity focused on upgrading cooperation between China and Europe on investment and trade as a way to deepen their strategic partnership.
China’s Belt and Road initiative aims to extend infrastructure and connectivity across Eurasia from the Asia-Pacific to Europe. It includes the overland Silk Road Economic Belt across Central Asia and the Twenty-First-Century Maritime Silk Road, which will span Southeast Asia. Since Chinese President Xi Jinping announced these initiatives in 2013, they have been actively discussed both within China and abroad. However, so far few infrastructure projects have been enacted and the proposal remains at an early stage. Civil and proxy wars have destabilized Syria, Libya, and Yemen, and Egypt is experiencing a domestic insurgency. Although instability in the Middle East remains widespread, China continues to deepen its ties in the region. In January 2016, Xi Jinping embarked on his first state visit to the Middle East as president of China, just days after Beijing released its first-ever policy paper on the region. President Xi Jinping appears to have ushered in a more assertive, proactive foreign policy approach than that of his predecessors—as high-profile initiatives like the Belt and Road make clear. Yet core principles of Chinese diplomacy have long been shaped by traditional Chinese cultural concepts that remain relevant today. As President Xi charts China’s foreign policy course in the years ahead, elements of continuity and change will continue to coexist.
The increasing aspirations of the economic giant China are likely to have lasting impact on the regional security and economic development of the South Asian states. Coupled with the Chinese approach of “non-intervention in internal matters” the idea of inclusive development under the Chinese “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) has laid the foundation for infrastructural and human development in the region. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is one of the flagship projects of the BRI, under which China is making large overseas investments in Pakistan. China and Pakistan have often repeated their stances that the CPEC is an economic corridor and a major stabilizing factor in the volatile and uncertain regional security paradigm of South Asia.
“Donald Trump elected as the US president and his America First foreign policy mantle, and Xi Jinping emerging from the newly-ended 19th National Congress of Communist Party of China even more powerful and vowing to rejuvenate his country, Sino-US relations had entered a period of turbulence and uncertainty…no-apology preachers of China Dream and America First, both Xi and Trump vowed to see their policies and agendas set in motion under their watch…How these two different visions with heavy dose of nationalist flavours can proceed smoothly against each other, especially at the backdrop of an emerging power transition, is an open question…However, for all the challenges and alarms, there’s still room for optimism of the future of China-US relations.
Taiwan: The First and Oldest ‘Thorn’ between China and the West
Over three hundred and fifty years ago, when the West lost its first war with China over Taiwan, the technological level between the two sides was fairly even. But the Dutch, then the most dynamic colonial power, paid a heavy price for misbelieving “China might have invented gunpowder but we possess superior guns.” Today, the world is witnessing China’s rapid rise and the US is in decline. The question is, will Taiwan once again bust the Western (aka US) superiority myth?
In 1662, the West fought its first war with China and lost. The Sino-Dutch War, as it is called now, was fought when a Chinese admiral dared the Dutch East India Company to give up its little under half century ‘rule’ over Taiwan. The defeat resulted in the island falling under Chinese rule for the first time in history. It is not so important to know it was China’s first great victory over Europe’s most dynamic colonial power. In the words of the Dutch historian, Tonio Andrade, what is more significant is the first Chinese victory over the West broke the myth of Western superiority as it had been achieved on the basis of “Chinese advantage in strategic and tactical culture.” (Emphasis added) The Chinese victory also broke another myth which the Western historians held on to until as recently as in 1970s, i.e., the Chinese might have invented the gunpowder but didn’t know how to use it as weapon, Andrade, the author went on to add.
Fast forward to the present-day tensions in the Taiwan Strait. As China embarked on the path of Reform and Opening-up, relations between Beijing and Taipei too started improving in the early 1980s. Seen as a remarkable political development on both sides of the Taiwan Strait in 45 years, the KMT government in Taipei declared in 1991 “an end to the war with the People’s Republic of China on the mainland.” However, since the election of Chen Shui-bian as president in 2000, political headwinds in Taiwan have been moving in the opposite direction to Beijing. Alarmed by Chen’s backing of demands for Taiwan’s independence, Beijing was quick to pass anti-secession law a year after Chen was reelected in 2004.
In 2016, following Donald Trump’s victory in US and the victory of Ms. Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwan’s president respectively, Beijing’s fear of Taiwan declaring itself an independent country has reached unprecedented levels. In fact, Beijing is feeling seriously threatened by the US role in creating conditions for Taiwan to declare independence. Immediately upon assuming office, President Trump held telephone conversation with the Taiwan president – something which no other US had done in the preceding forty years. This was the beginning of a new trend in US-China relations and which grossly undermined the “One China” policy.
During the past decade (between 2007 and 2019), the US warships made over one hundred trips through the Taiwan Strait. No wonder Beijing has been describing Taiwan as “the most important sensitive issue in Sino-US relations.” According to New Strait Times, in 2020, the year of Coronavirus pandemic, the cross-strait faced its worst crisis in the past two decades. Without denying that the PLA fighter planes crossed maritime border with Taiwan, China however dismissed Taipei’s claims of “incursions” by the mainland. Beijing even maintained its warplanes, bombers and anti-submarine aircrafts “conducted normal exercises on September 18 and 19 respectively and that the median line never existed.”
However, according to experts, the median line is the unofficial airspace boundary between Taiwan and China, and was demarcated by US Air Force General Benjamin Davis Jr. in 1955, before the US pressured both sides to enter into a tacit agreement not to cross it. Media reports originating from Taipei, Hong Kong and Singapore claimed the forty or more PLA incursions last October, were prompted by two US top officials visiting Taipei during August-September period last year. “U.S. Under Secretary of State Keith Krach arrived in Taiwan on Thursday for the second visit by a high-level American official in two months. The first visit was by the US Health Secretary Alex Azar in August 2020.” The visits by Krach and Azar respectively were first highest-level US Cabinet visits to Taiwan – in gross violation of the US commitments to China – since the US switched formal relations from Taiwan to Beijing in 1979.
This year, especially within hours following President entered the White House, the new US administration lost no time in announcing “our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid.” Two days earlier, the State Department invited and officially received Taiwan’s unofficial ambassador in Washington to Biden’s inauguration – the first envoy from the island present at a presidential swearing-in since 1979. Both the statement of commitment to Taiwan and the presence of Taiwanese envoy at the presidential inauguration respectively were interpreted by strategic affairs experts in Washington and Beijing as moves to provoke China towards making a strategic mistake leading to military conflict.
Further, Taiwan has returned as “thorniest” issue in US-China relations under President Biden – since perhaps it is easier to violate “One China” policy than to either rally European allies against China or to announce a decisive Washington position toward Beijing. As President Biden gears up to embark on his maiden in-person visit to shake hands or bump elbows with his European allies, the US administration has further escalated tensions over Taiwan. Last Sunday, a bipartisan contingent of three US Senators – Tammy Duckworth and Christopher Coons, both Democrats, and Dan Sullivan, a Republican – briefly visited Taiwan on a US military aircraft. According to media reports, the Chinese Defense Ministry described the visit as “extremely vile provocation.” Reuters citing Chinese sources said China believes that “Biden administration is challenging one-China principle and trying to achieve the so-called goal of ‘using Taiwan to control’ China.”
Experts in Beijing point out, Biden is accelerating the pitch of what started under Obama and was intensified by Trump, i.e., to use “the US economic and military might to pressure Beijing and force it to accept US hegemony in the region.” Elsewhere, first the joint statement following Biden-Suga summit in April and then in late May the statement released after the summit meeting between European leaders and Japan’s Prime Minister Suga, are being interpreted as “belligerent stances towards Beijing initiated and encouraged by President Biden.” The EU-Japan post-summit statement called for “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” Similar to several moves initiated by Trump and Biden challenging one-China policy, the EU-Suga joint statement too is the first time that Taiwan has been included in such a statement.
A scholar in Tianjin, who writes a column for ftchinese.com, the daily online Mandarin version of the Financial Times, thinks Biden has intensified the so-called Thucydides trap. In a recent article, he has actually put forward a solution for Beijing to not only avoid falling into the trap, but also steer clear of having to choose between using force to reunify with Taiwan and being forced into military conflict with the US by striking first. To sum up Li Yongning’s rather long thesis, he prescribes that China fight out Thucydides trap with economic growth and people’s prosperity. To prove his point, Li flashes the example of de-escalation of hostility between China and Japan. Remember until a few years ago, heightened tensions between the two over Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands. Of late, especially since the middle of Xi Jinping’s first five year tenure, belligerent provocations between Beijing and Tokyo have almost ceased.
How did China under Xi achieve this? According to Li, Xi’s strategy to strike peace and tranquility with Japan was simple and practical. “China’s GDP exceeded Japan’s in 2010 and by 2019 it became 2.8 times more than Japan’s, which put an end to Sino-Japan competitiveness. Likewise, once China achieves one and a half times or twice bigger GDP of the USA, the China-US competitiveness will be rendered as joke,” Li contended. In 2017, in PPP terms China had already exceeded the US economy. Li cited a Brookings Institution report which predicted China’s GDP will cross America’s in 2028. “Once China reaches there, higher GDP will act as shock absorber for all Sino-US conflicts,” Li wrote.
China’s know-how on becoming the oldest society in the world
For decades, China had a “one-child policy” that permitted families to have only one child. A few years ago, this restriction was changed to a “two-child policy”, and now the Chinese government has allowed the Chinese people to give birth to three children.
The main reason for this is the concerningly low birth rate and the impending demographic crisis. China is still the country with the largest population (1.41 billion), but UN forecasts indicate that India will soon surpass it, since India has a much higher birth rate.
Statistics show that last year approximately 12 million babies were born in China, which is the lowest birth rate China has had in many years. For instance, in 2016 when the “two-child policy” was implemented, the number of newborns reached 18 million.
Chinese demographers argue that it will be difficult for China to boost birth rate in the near future because the number of women in the reproductive age is decreasing. This was caused by China’s “one-child policy” that was in force from 1979 to 2015.
Chinese families could give birth only to one child, and many families chose to “spend” this quota on a boy, since in China boys have traditionally been valued more than girls. If a family were told they were expecting a girl, the mother would often decide to have an abortion.
This caused an unexpected outcome – the number of men exceeded the number of women. Although it was not allowed to find out the sex of the baby during pregnancy, there were several ways to do so which lead to numerous late abortions. That is why currently there is a disproportion between the number of men and women in the Chinese society.
As a result, modern China is overproducing men and is in a grave lack of women. Statistics indicate that there are 35 million more men than women – leaving many men with no chances of finding a spouse.
Moreover, the beliefs and values of the Chinese people have also changed over the years, i.e. many women wish to pursue a career first and only then to establish a family. The recent years have seen a rapid decline in marriages in China.
These trends are particularly prevalent in Chinese cities, leading demographers to predict that the gap between the situation in cities and the situation in the countryside will only widen in the future – people in the countryside still prefer larger families, while city dwellers have a hard time giving birth to a single child.
“Now, we are allowed to have three children. The problem, however, is that I don’t even want one child,” a user of the Chinese social media network Weibo wrote in his account.
Many are asking the question – will the “three-child policy” change anything if the “two-child policy” wasn’t able to do so? That’s why people are happy about the government’s decision to provide other incentives and motivations in this regard.
For example, education costs – which were twice as high in two-children families – will be cut, people will see additional support on tax and housing issues and working women will be granted more rights. In addition, the government also has plans to educate young Chinese people on the issues of marriage and love – now, state propaganda will not only deal with shaming the West, but also teach people how to love correctly and “make children”.
This leads to believe that the Chinese government has taken quite a peculiar approach to identifying mistakes in their previous policies, but it isn’t truly admitting these mistakes – as is the case in all authoritarian regimes. If the previous plan fails, simply improve it a bit and relaunch it anew.
The “one-child policy” has led to one-and-a-half generation where there are six people from the non-working population for each person in the working population, i.e. the person’s parents and two sets of grandparents. This is the Chinese Communist Party’s know-how.
Global Health & Health Silk Road: The Other Side Of Picture
The new world order is a twisted maze of political, economic and cultural ambitions. China’s obscure political economy presents an unparalleled challenge to those unfamiliar with the cultural and historical undercurrents driving Beijing’s global movements. Following the onset of the CoVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, the global society observed one of the hasty economic convulsion since World War II. Nearly all nation states sealed their borders and placed global supply chain and trade in limbo as the spread of the virus continued unabated. As Beijing’s flagship investment project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was similarly disrupted. The BRI initiative has formed the cornerstone of President Xi’s approach to strategic diplomacy and challenged the traditional concept of development. Key rhetoric underlying the initiative, such as “the community of common destiny for mankind”.
Nevertheless, there is a “Digital Silk Road”, and “Space Silk Road”, so it should come as no bombshell that China is also building a “Health Silk Road”. China’s HSR first appeared in a speech given by President Xi in 2016. At the first BRI Forum 2017, a Beijing Communique of Belt and Road Health Cooperation and Health Silk Road was signed by China, the World Health Organization (WHO), UNAIDS, OECD, GAVI and other participating countries. Since then, China made a significant move towards the consolidation of its role as a major player in global health. Similarly, it is no secret that China is making a boost for global health leadership during CoVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic spread across the world, China sought to provide aid packages and medical assistance to partner states within the BRI under the name of “Health Silk Road”. The ongoing CoVID-19 pandemic is not only going to fundamentally transform the global politics, but also the foreign policy priorities of many countries. Since the outbreak, the CoVID-19 pandemic has exposed the significant weakness of public health infrastructure of developed and developing countries alike.
There is widespread understanding among scientists, heritage and history writers that one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, black death, originated in China and spread along the old silk road to central Asia, northern India and Europe. It exhibited a blueprint that is as old as human history, – when people and goods travel, so do viruses and bacteria. Today, there is some speculation about whether CoVID-19 circulated along the “new silk road”, and it has been criticized that the BRI contributed to the spread of the virus. These kinds of debates are pointless because, even without modern means of transport like trains, cargo-ships, and planes, the plague can reach the most remote places in the world and kill a large portion of the global population. Highly criticized for covering up and not preventing the virus from turning into a global pandemic, China is making an efforts to reinstate its persona as a symbol of support, strength and leadership. Opponents have also alleged that Beijing rationalized itself as a global health champion at a time when Washington had abdicated its responsibilities.
Regardless of misgivings, China has been promoting the institutionalization of health cooperation within HSR framework by organizing and sponsoring a number of health-themed forums. For example, the Silk Road Health Forum, China-Central and Eastern European Countries Health Ministers Forum, China-ASEAN Health Forum, and the China-Arab States Health Forum. Beijing also initiated a series of supportive programs on disease control and prevention in alliance with its neighbors in Central Asia. All these efforts were made as part of China’s broader global health diplomacy and leadership before the CoVID-19 pandemic hit the world. With the spread of CoVID-19 across the world, the Chinese government extended support to countries from East Asia to Europe. It has given 20 million dollars to the World Health Organization (WHO) for assisting developing countries in coping with the pandemic, build up their epidemic-prevention abilities, and building a stronger public health system. China also handed out concessionary loans and played a coordinating role in multilaterals like G-20, ASEAN, the SCO and the African Union, established itself in a leadership position by promptly responding to the crises and catering to the needs of the countries all over.
In contrast with the advance economics, what China has contributed to the global pandemic combat becomes even more admirable. Statistics show that China has provided considerable amount of medical assistance to the rest of world, including approximately 70.6 billion face masks, 225 million test kits, 115 million pairs of goggles, 340 million protective suits, 96,700 ventilators, and 40.29 million infrared thermometers to 200 countries and regions in 2020. China’s medical professionals have also played a vital role in the global pandemic battle by contributing their knowledge and experience on the frontlines in many virus-impacted countries. China has shared medical best practices with a multitude of international organizations, including the ASEAN, EU, African Union, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Caribbean, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, as well as some of the hardest-hit countries such as South Korea, Japan, Russia, the United States, and Germany.
Concisely, with all these notable endeavors and substantial contributions, is it still premature to presume that China has taken over the leadership role in terms of global health? China’s engagement in global health, especially during CoVID-19, has positioned itself as a johnny on the spot in global health leadership. The HSR undoubtedly will allow China to re-establish its national repute on the international stage, in particular by contrasting it with the inelegant responses of the United States and other European nations. China’s global aspirations, efforts to present itself as a global health leader should not be considered as surprise. It is still too early to tell the magnitude to which China’s global health sprint will transform its international profile, but there is no reason to be cynical that it will be revolutionary. As an old Chinese saying goes, it takes a good blacksmith to make good steel.
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