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Russia’s Shift from “Greater Europe” to “Greater Asia”

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When the Ukraine crisis broke out in 2014, political analysts pointed out, quite rightly, that Russia without Ukraine would become more Asian. With the country’s borders now more in Asia than in Europe, Moscow would inescapably focus more on the Middle East and China. The latter would become Russia’s primary ally in global politics, but there would also be fears that Beijing would overshadow Moscow’s role in their bilateral relations. In other words, analysts believed Russia would turn into a Chinese appendage that provided energy resources to the Asian giant.

Years have passed, and there have been some interesting twists in this analysis. Russian analysts and many in the West have started to develop the idea that the Ukraine crisis and the ensuing deterioration of relations with the West freed Russia from its Euro-centrist views on foreign policy. For the first time since Peter the Great, Russia would initiate “de-Europeanization” of its geopolitical outlook and once again be truly Russian in terms of the way it conducted its foreign relations. In this analysis, Beijing is viewed as a facilitator for Moscow.

Because the two countries share a desire to limit US influence across Eurasia, there is indeed a sympathy among the Russian political elites for the idea of growing and formalizing Russia-China relations beyond the current level. Some even hesitantly approve of an alliance.

This juggling of ideas about Russia’s foreign policy since 2014 is intriguing, but it obscures a crucial development: Russia is slowly being turned into an Asian state.

Many call this assertion farfetched and claim that Moscow now has more avenues through which to project its power across the Eurasian landmass. This “new diversification” idea misses the simple fact that Russia has always had a diversified foreign policy. Moscow was heavily involved in the Middle East for centuries. This applies not only to the Ottoman Empire of the 18th-19th centuries, but also to Russian interests in Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan (if we consider it as separate from Central Asia), northern China, the Korean Peninsula, and elsewhere. This was true during the time of the Romanovs as well as during Soviet times. The idea that Russian foreign policy since the Ukraine crisis has become more diversified does not correspond to the reality of the past two centuries.

What we are seeing today is declining Russian political clout in eastern Europe. There might be talk of Russia’s pipeline geopolitics (often successful), successful annexation of Crimea, and thwarting of Ukraine’s, Moldova’s, and Georgia’s NATO/EU aspirations, but the ultimate success of all those measures remains open to question. The West is much more powerful than Russia in terms of economy, soft power, and more.

Russia is becoming more Asia-focused (including the Middle East) not because of a Kremlin master plan but because playing the China card is inevitable.

About ten years ago, the Russian political elite was enthusiastic about the prospect of creating a greater Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok. This would have been a more or less unified economic space extending all the way to the borders of China. Putin himself publicly advocated this idea.

But after a few years, Russia’s vision completely changed. In geo-economic terms, Putin’s greater Europe idea was gradually replaced by the concept of a greater Asia from St. Petersburg to Shanghai.

In 2014, China displaced Germany as Russia’s number one trade partner—but Russia is only tenth among China’s trade partners. China has also replaced Germany as Russia’s biggest supplier of machinery and equipment.

It is commonplace in Russia for grand geopolitical ideas to shift. A decade ago, Russians envisioned closer political and economic relations with Europe. Now many think about near-strategic cooperation with China, while still others think about being independent of China.

Moscow will maintain relations with Europe. Many military, security, and economic problems across Europe can only be solved with Russian participation. But there are economic and cultural shifts that limit Russia’s projection of power into Ukraine, the Baltic States, and even the South Caucasus. Russia has a freer hand in Central Asia, through military moves in the chaotic Middle East and Africa. This illustrates how Russia without Ukraine and the Baltic States now has more frontiers in Asia than in Europe.

It has become fashionable among Russia analysts to point out how in the past two decades under Putin the country regained much of its internal strength, which resulted in foreign policy successes. In fact, what has been more pivotal within the context of Russian history is that the Russian political elite in the past 20 years has been seeking the country’s new place in Eurasia.

This development was easily foreseen. After losing large swathes of formerly Soviet territory, Russia was forced to find its place in 21st century Eurasia.

Moscow would like to portray itself as independent, but it isn’t. Russia, unable to accommodate itself with Europe, has little choice but to turn to Asia.

Author’s note: first published in BESA Center

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

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British Sanctions Against Patriarch Kirill. Forgiveness and Humility in Response

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The UK Treasury has published another list of Russian individuals subject to financial sanctions. Along with 11 other Russians, the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill is included. The use of restrictive measures against Patriarch Kirill represents is a new stage of escalation in relations between Russia and the West. Sanctions may affect the foreign activities of the Moscow Patriarchate. However, the political consequences are far more important. Whether willing or not, London is adding a religious dimension to the hornet’s nest of its current problems. At first glance, a technical and relatively minor political move can have disproportionately serious consequences.

Sanctions against Patriarch Kirill will do nothing to achieve the stated goals of British sanctions — to counter “Russian aggression” against Ukraine. Church support for the Russian government will only become more decisive. However, they will give rise to additional new risks, which will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to control. The British officials, by zealously “punishing” the Russian religious leader, are doing a disservice to their own country and the rest of the Western community. Religion is an extremely sensitive topic, capable of heating up any conflict at an uncontrollable speed.

Let’s start with the possible material consequences of the sanctions for Patriarch Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church. Blocking financial sanctions mean that individuals under UK jurisdiction are prohibited from engaging in any financial transactions with the blocked persons. Their assets are frozen. That is, formally they remain the property of the blocked person, but it is practically impossible to use them. One of the key questions is whether such restrictions on Patriarch Kirill affect the property of the ROC in the UK, as well as its activities? At first glance, the answer is no. The list of blocked persons did not include the Moscow Patriarchate as an institution. There are no legal entities subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate among them.

However, they may still have problems in connection with the concept of ownership and control. Part 4 of the December 2020 UK Financial Sanctions General Guidelines clarifies that blocking sanctions apply to any entity that is directly or indirectly owned or controlled by a person subject to blocking sanctions. Here we mean, first of all, property relations. The British regulator applies the “50% rule” when the criterion for control is the ownership of shares of 50% or more of a controlled entity. Such a rule is quite applicable for companies and corporations, but not for the Church. Patriarch Kirill heads the Russian Orthodox Church, but cannot be considered its “owner”. However, the Guidelines contain other control criteria. For example, such a criterion could be the expectation that the person may be able to carry out the activities of the organisation in accordance with its requirements. Its decryption is again more suitable for business. So, for example, the concept of such opportunities includes the appointment of a board of directors or key managers, control of the bank accounts of the organisation or its economic resources. But its application to other legal entities, including those subordinate to or associated with Patriarch Kirill, is not ruled out. That is, there is an element of legal uncertainty.

The main difficulty here may arise in connection with the so-called excessive compliance of foreign counterparties of the ROC. Today, the practice has developed when foreign counterparties are forced to excessively comply with the law, due to the threat of administrative and even criminal measures against violators of the sanctions regime, as well as the uncertainty of some rules. In other words, it is easier to over-execute and refuse a transaction than to carry it out with the risk of subsequent problems with the regulator. Especially excessive compliance is typical for banks, which are the most vulnerable due to their large number of transactions, and are frightened off by the experience of some violators incurring multi-million (and sometimes billion) fines for failing to meet the requirements of sanctions regulators.

Moreover, British sanctions may also affect the excessive compliance of banks and counterparties in other jurisdictions. The procedure for monitoring a counterparty through databases of sanctioned persons will inevitably reveal to them the connection of any institution of the Moscow Patriarchate with Patriarch Kirill. Again, from a procedural point of view, this will mean, at a minimum, transactional delays, regardless of whether it is under British jurisdiction or not. Such delays today are due to the very connection of the deal with Russia, even if there are no persons under sanctions involved. The appearance of such persons increases the risk of disrupting the transaction.

At the same time, in comparison with the material side of the issue, the political consequences seem to be much more important. Sanctions against Patriarch Kirill make the conflict between Russia and the West a clash of religious values. You can argue as much as you like that these are not sanctions against the Russian people; that the sanctions against Patriarch Kirill are allegedly imposed for supporting the Russian authorities in their policy on the Ukrainian issue, that the British authorities have nothing else in mind, that this is a purely legal issue, and not a reason for a value conflict, etc. This will also include analytical notes by Russophobes on how the ROC is used as a tool of “soft power” in the post-Soviet space and beyond. The problem, however, is that we do not only live in a world of bureaucratic schemes and technocratic politics. We live in a much more complex world, where bureaucratic machinery collides with the psychology of large masses of people, with symbols, with the complexity and diversity of perceptions and, most importantly, the possibility of using all this complexity for political purposes. It is not so important who exactly ends up using all this energy. It is important that a hostile measure against a religious leader will inevitably add fuel to the fire. It will expand the dimensions of the conflict, shifting it from a purely secular arena into the realm of religious feelings. Russia is a rather secularised society. It is difficult to expect that the sanctions against Patriarch Kirill will lead to the effects that a similar move would have, for example, on an Islamic community, in the event of similar actions being taken against an Islamic leader of a similar magnitude. However, it is hardly worth underestimating the religious factor, especially given the difficult historical background. At first glance, technocratic action releases forces that are very difficult to control. The West has already encountered the factor of political Islam, generated by difficult relations with individual Islamic countries. Now the almost-forgotten contours of faults between Christian denominations are added here. It is sympathetic that earlier sanctions against Patriarch Kirill were discussed as one of the measures of the sixth package of EU sanctions, but were not included in the final version. A scaling up of the British initiative is not out of the question, and will complicate things much more.

At the same time, the sanctions against Patriarch Kirill do not bring the British authorities one iota closer to the implementation of the declared goals of the sanctions policy. Formally, they must “change the behaviour” of the person under sanctions. That is, in the bureaucratic scheme, after the imposition of sanctions, Patriarch Kirill must refuse to support the Russian authorities on the Ukrainian issue. At the very least, sanctions should “raise the price” of such support. What will actually happen? The Church’s support for the Russian authorities will only increase. The ROC is likely to face some material damage from the sanctions against Patriarch Kirill, but it will also only increase the energy of the consolidation of Church and state. In other words, the sanctions will have the opposite effect of what’s expected and will be a disservice.

What can the Russians do in response? Surely there will be a temptation to adopt “mirror and symmetrical” actions, such as adding British religious figures to our lists. Such an action on our part will only lend weight to the British move, show that we think in the same terms. If in other areas retaliatory measures can be justified, then in the subtle world of religious issues, caution and prudence are advisable. Linear circuits do harm here. Forgiveness and humility can do much, as a great moral force.

From our partner RIAC

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‘Russian Rebellion’: Local and Global Consequences

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The military conflict in Ukraine today is at the nerve of relations between Russia and the West, and largely sets the tone for security policy in the Euro-Atlantic region. It also has many global implications. In the ideological sphere, it is increasingly presented as a struggle between the liberal world order and the “rebellion of the discontented”. It is Russia that today has assumed the role of the vanguard of such a rebellion, openly challenging its Western rivals.

The use of the concept of rebellion here is not accidental. The West is promoting a liberal world order based on clear ideological premises. These include the market economy; the globalisation of standards, markets and technologies; democracy as a no-alternative political form for the organisation of states; an open society and a diversity of cultures and ways of life; and human rights. In practice, the implementation of these principles varies from country to country and changes over time. However, the diversity of practice has little effect on the integrity of the ideology. Unlike the West, Russia does not offer an alternative ideological menu. So Russia differs from the Soviet Union, which at one time adopted another modernist ideology – socialism – and actively promoted it as a global alternative.

At the same time, both liberalism and socialism are Western doctrines. Both are based on the ideas of progress, rationality and emancipation. There are more similarities between them than you might think. Socialists offer a different view of private property, pointing to the excesses of the uncontrolled market. Already in the twentieth century, however, there was a convergence of liberal and socialist ideas in the form of a combination of state regulation and the market. With regards to their political ideation, democracy and the power of the people are no less important for socialism than for liberalism. Traces of the idea of globalisation could be found in the concept of international worker solidarity. Liberation from prejudices and the rationalisation of all spheres of life are expressed as clearly in socialism as in liberalism.

The problem with the Soviet Union was that the implementation of socialist ideas eventually turned into an imitation. The principles of democracy remained on paper, but in reality they were crushed by an authoritarian (and at certain stages – totalitarian) state. In the rationalisation of the economy and industrialisation, the USSR achieved amazing success, but later it ran into stagnation, unable to adapt its economy to rapidly changing world realities. The periphery of the economy, with its raw-material bias, was identified back in the Brezhnev era. Emancipation proved unprecedented, but was also ultimately hobbled by the increasingly rigid social structure of the Soviet state. At the end of the Cold War, the picture was completed by double standards and a cynical attitude towards the ideology of Soviet society itself and its elite.

Despite the collapse of the Soviet project, the policy of the USSR could hardly be called a rebellion. Throughout its history, the USSR still offered a systemic alternative. Relations with the bourgeois environment could be called an attempt at revolution, and then rivalry and competition, but not a revolt. Soviet policy had a positive agenda, offering a holistic picture of the world.

The current “Russian rebellion” is based on dissatisfaction with the established status quo of the liberal world order, or rather, its individual consequences for Russia.

There are reasons for such dissatisfaction. Scepticism about democracy was determined by the practical possibilities of foreign states to “hack” democratic institutions. Colour revolutions in the post-Soviet space only strengthened this attitude. The flip-side of democracy was the possibility of interference in democratic institutions from the outside in order to ‘correct’ the political course. The United States, not without reason, was considered a key “hacker” of national sovereignty through the manipulation of democratic institutions abroad. All the more ironic was the indignation of Washington itself after Russia allegedly also tried to “hack” American democracy.

Russia’s greatest annoyance was its secondary role in the unipolar world order, the disregard for its interests, and that system’s increasingly clear refusal to perceive it as an equal partner. Interestingly, economic factors were secondary for the “Russian rebellion”. In theory, Russia can be considered dissatisfied with its peripheral status in the global economy and its role as a raw materials appendage. In practice, Russia has become very deeply integrated into the international division of labour. However, compared to the stories about democracy, sovereignty and foreign policy, Russia’s dissatisfaction with its place in the world economy was articulated in a very weak way. Liberal emancipation can hardly be considered the main political problem for Moscow. In some aspects, the Russian narrative has distanced itself from the Western mainstream. This concerns such topics as multiculturalism and sexual minorities; although in the West itself, perceptions of these remains extremely heterogeneous. At the same time, in terms of lifestyle, Russia is still more of a European and Western country, so culture, like the economy, can hardly be considered a key source of the problem.

Given the concentration of Russian discontent in the political sphere, it is hardly surprising that it was the Ukrainian issue that became the trigger for the “Russian rebellion”. The Maidans and the change of power were seen by Moscow as a cynical hack into the country’s political system, as well as a threat of such a hack targeting Russia itself. In addition, at the doctrinal level, Ukraine was increasingly positioned as a fundamentally different project, drifting further and further towards Western values. From the point of view of foreign policy, it was with regards to the Ukrainian issue that Russian interests in the field of security were discriminated against in the most acute form. Economic issues here also acquired political overtones: Moscow could put pressure on Kyiv with gas prices and threats to diversify its transit, but it was clearly losing to the European Union and other Western players in the very model of economic integration. It is not surprising that all those contradictions that had accumulated after the Cold War made themselves known in Ukraine.

Realising that the game was being played according to fundamentally unfavourable and discriminatory rules from the Russian point of view, Moscow not only slammed the table with its fist and brushed the pieces off the board, it also decided, figuratively speaking, to hit its opponents hard on the head with this board. Rivalry “according to the rules” turned into a fight, the field of which is Ukraine. At the same time, on the part of the West itself, there is a degree of irritation, discontent and rejection of Russia, proportional to its own discontent or even surpassing it. The West is frustrated by the very fact of a decisive rebellion, its senselessness in terms of the balance of benefits and losses, and the ruthlessness of Russian pressure. Hence the obvious non-selectivity and emotionality of retaliatory strikes, a bizarre mixture of sanctions bombings, plans to confiscate Russian property, defeat the “oligarchs” (the most pro-Western wing of the Russian elite) and equally senseless bullying of the Russian cultural, sports and intellectual elite, and society as a whole. Only the threat of a direct military confrontation with Russia keeps them from using military force.

The West has every reason to fear the “Russian rebellion.” Worries about a liberal world order arose long before 2022 and even before 2014. Compared to Russia, China poses a far greater danger. If the “Russian rebellion” is successful, it will become clear that China’s ambitions will be even more difficult to contain. Moreover, unlike Russia, China can offer an alternative economic model, and its own view of democracy, as well as a different ethic of international relations.

The success of the “Russian rebellion” may become a prologue to much more systemic challenges. Therefore, the pacification of Russia for the West has become a task that clearly goes beyond the boundaries of the post-Soviet and even the Euro-Atlantic space.

Meanwhile, in the actions of Moscow, there have been signs of progress that are unpleasant for the West. Yes, the Western blockade will increase the lag and backwardness of the economy. Yes, military operations are costly. Yes, they can cause unpredictable social reactions and even present a challenge to political stability. None of these challenges, however, are capable of knocking Russia off its political course from now on. Moscow is slowly developing an offensive and seems to be determined to integrate the occupied Ukrainian territories into its political, information and economic space. Ukraine faces not only colossal economic and human losses, but also the threat of losing territory. Large-scale Western aid is having an effect, making it difficult for Russia to act. Apparently, however, it is not able to stop Russians: infusions of military equipment are simply ground up by military operations. The longer the conflict drags on, the more territory Ukraine could lose. This presents the West with the unpleasant realisation that it is necessary to reach at least a temporary agreement with Russia. It will be preceded by an attempt to reverse the military situation. However, if it fails, Ukraine will simply not be able to stop the further loss of its statehood.

In other words, the “Russian rebellion” has a chance to end in success in the sense that it may end in a fundamental reformatting of a large post-Soviet state that has recently been hostile to Russia. It will show the readiness and ability on the part of Russia to back up its claims with the most radical actions.

Will the success of the rebellion mean its victory? This will depend on two factors. The first is the international political implications. A military success in Ukraine could set off a chain of global consequences leading to the decline of the West. However, such a scenario is far from predetermined. The West’s margin of safety is high, despite its apparent vulnerability. The readiness of other non-Western players to give up the benefits of globalisation for the sake of abstract and vague political guidelines like a multipolar world is completely unobvious. It is likely that the West will have to endure the new status quo in Ukraine, but this does not mean the defeat of its model. Russia does not systematically challenge this model and does not have a complete picture of how to change it. In Moscow, perhaps, they believe that the model has become obsolete and expect it to collapse by itself, but this conclusion is far from obvious.

The second factor is the consequences for Russia itself. By avoiding promoting a global alternative to the liberal order, Russia will at least have to decide on a programme for its own development. So far, its contours are also built mainly around the denial of the West and its models in certain areas. Given that, the vast majority of other non-Western countries, while defending their sovereignty, are actively developing and cultivating Western practices that benefit them. These include the organisation of industry, developments in the field of science and education, and participation in the international division of labour. The rejection of such practices, just because they are conditionally “Western”, as well as the “cosplay” of Soviet practices created amid different historical conditions and left in the distant past, can only increase the difficulties that Russia is currently facing. The preservation and development of a market economy as well as an open and mobile society remain among the most important tasks.

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BRICS creating early warning system for epidemic risks

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In their final declaration, leaders of the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) at the end of their 14th summit hosted by China, have emphasized their commitment the need for creating complex early warning system for epidemic risks within the group, and underscored that the member states must be better prepared for future healthcare emergencies.

The group also advocated “equitable distribution of vaccines” and called on international agencies and charities to purchase vaccines and boosters “from manufacturers in developing countries, including in Africa, to ensure that the manufacturing capabilities being developed are retained.”

Russia has been advocating for closer collaboration among the members, but China seems to be the fastest in taking actions concerning health related matters. Under the leadership of Russia, it first proposed cooperation on countering infectious diseases as a priority for BRICS. The final joint declaration of the 2015 BRICS summit in Ufa, Russia, has instructions by the leaders to work consistently on managing the risk of disease outbreaks.

“We are concerned about growing and diversifying global threats posed by communicable and non-communicable diseases. It has a negative impact on economic and social development, especially in developing and in the least developed countries,” said the 2015 BRICS declaration.

Among the group, China and India were ready to step up the sharing of information, and experience with BRICS countries and conduct joint research and development of drugs and vaccines based on respecting each other’s sovereignty and national conditions.

During the rotating chairmanship of South Africa, it firmly re-proposed the creating of full-scale coordinating research and development center and planned to be located in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Nevertheless, there has not been any practical achievements in that direction. Then Covid-19 began in December 2019 and was declared pandemic the following year by the World Health Organization (WHO). As China took the helm of BRICS, effective from January 2022, experts and research analysts have since showed deep interests and were further discussing possibilities of multilateral cooperation, existing challenges and identifying diverse priorities, the strength and weaknesses of BRICS.

With noticeable efforts, BRICS has consistently been pushing for diverse health initiatives, most especially vaccines, to halt the coronavirus pandemic that has shattered the global economy. There are Chinese and Russian vaccines, both reported as effective and safe, and currently getting ready to ramp up large-scale production.

March 22 marked the launch the BRICS Vaccine Research and Development Centre, involving the heads of relevant agencies from the five countries. The initiative to establish the BRICS Vaccine R&D Center was incorporated in the final declaration of the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa (July 26-27, 2018).

The main objective is to share best practices and strengthen practical cooperation in research, development, production and distribution of vaccines to ensure their greater availability. The new format is designed to develop mechanisms for the prevention, diagnosis and prompt response to new viruses, as well as to ensure timely and widespread Covid-19 vaccination.

The launch of the BRICS Vaccine R&D Center is considered as a major achievement of the five-sided cooperation, in strengthening cooperation in the field of healthcare in particular through the implementation of the Russian initiative to establish the BRICS Integrated Early Warning System for preventing mass infectious disease risks, in the Chinese chairmanship of the BRICS.

China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin explained, during his regular media briefing on March 23, that the BRICS Vaccine R&D Center and workshop on vaccine cooperation would be a network of internet-based virtual centers, and the establishment of physical centers would only begin later after comprehensive feasibility assessment.

As the BRICS Chair this year, China hosted the 14th BRICS Summit in June under the theme of “Foster High-quality BRICS Partnership, Usher in a New Era for Global Development” and public health and vaccine cooperation are among the key areas of BRICS cooperation this year. At present, the pandemic is still dragging on across the world.

The establishment of the BRICS Vaccine R&D Center demonstrates the determination of BRICS countries to focus on vaccine cooperation, deepen public health cooperation and build a BRICS line of defense against Covid-19.

“We hope that the vaccine R&D center will pool the strengths of BRICS countries, further promote scientific and technological cooperation among BRICS countries, enhance the five countries’ capability of preventing and controlling infectious diseases contribute to the global fight against Covid-19 and make new contributions to international public health cooperation,” Wang Wenbin explained during the media briefing.

The BRICS countries are making efforts to contribute to an enhanced international cooperation to support the efforts of countries to achieve the health goals, including the implementation of universal and equitable access to health services, and ensure affordable, good-quality service delivery while taking into account different national circumstances, policies, priorities and capabilities.

The BRICS member countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) collectively represent about 26% of the world’s geographic area and are home to 3.6 billion people, about 40% of the world’s population and a combined nominal Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of US$16.6 trillion.

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