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Economies vs. coronavirus

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As the coronavirus pandemic advances worldwide coming to the fore is the ability of economies to hold out against an increasingly likely global recession.

Throughout the past year, a number of economists predicted a deterioration in international and country situation in 2020. However, at that moment, the researchers cited “classical” macroeconomic reasons for such a recession – the trade war, the slowdown in leading economies, the growing “bubbles” in stock markets, factors of cyclic nature. As for more radical forecasts, even their authors categorized them as “shocking” or “unbelievable.” No one could contemplate a global epidemic, capable of literally “putting on quarantine” billions of people.

“The fight against the pandemic came as a shock of a scope, if not the Great Depression of the 1930s, then at least the Great Recession of 2008–2009,” – says Oleg Shibanov, professor at the Russian Economic School, in Vedomosti. In the face of the coronavirus, there emerged a watershed between countries that have demonstrated the ability to quickly and effectively respond to the epidemic – “this is South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong”, along with one-party China, which mobilized a well-trained military and civilian state apparatus to fight against coronavirus, “and those Western countries that turned out to be unprepared, ” – says Pierre Lelouch, former French Secretary of State for European Affairs, in an interview with Le Figaro.

From the structural point of view, the closure of dozens of businesses and even the entire sectors of the economy in most countries of the world, combined with the fall of stock markets “during February and March” has caused a drop in demand in most countries of the world. Quarantine inevitably limits consumer access to the service sector, which is fraught with disaster for small and medium-sized businesses, which, for example, in South Korea, make up more than half of national economy. Also, it is completely unclear as to how the transportation industry, tourism industry, public catering can recover after the crisis. In addition, a major problem to be tackled with is the absence, for understandable reasons, of reliable epidemiological models that would allow governments to predict with high precision the development of a pandemic and its economic consequences.

For example, experts have information on the economic indicators of US metropolitan areas during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918-19. They show that the more drastic measures the authorities used to combat the epidemic, the higher their economic performance was after it ended. However, The Economist says, the age-related characteristics of coronavirus mortality are very different from the Spanish flu. Unlike then, when it was about an industrial economy, today it’s mainly about the economy of services. Therefore, the outcome may be different.

Economists have traditionally used the concept of “growth model” to describe the key characteristics of the economic systems of individual countries. They also use this model to predict the policies of the authorities in the context of economic crises. However, at present most leading economies or economic associations are characterized by a mixed model which requires the adoption of measures that contradict each other. And therein lies a huge problem.

Thus, the EU faced the pandemic in a situation where the chances for meeting the criteria for EU membership in case of an unfavorable turn of events in the global economic environment were very limited for most countries in the eurozone. The slowdown in European economies during the 2000s – 2010s led to an increase in budget deficits in many countries. The current crisis hit Europe, first of all, countries that are already burdened with high debt. For example, Italy’s public debt could reach 160 percent of GDP by the end of this year – which “could provoke panic in the state bond market.” As a result, one of the first “victims” of coronavirus was the EU Stability Pact.

The current crisis is different for Europe compared to the previous ones also because the pandemic is “unpredictable” and because “Europeanism” was weakened by other crises of the last decade. ”. The situation in the eurozone is“ much worse than in 2009 ”, because forecasters underestimate the “implosion of economic processes.” “The recession promises to be longer and deeper”. According to the ECB, the EU may require a package of fiscal measures of up to 1.5 trillion euro until the end of the year. Like during the euro crisis, Europe has split. Paris, Rome and Madrid, supported by a growing number of other countries, are demanding common “corona bonds” to share the burden of fighting the epidemic and its economic consequences. This is because countries that rely on consumption for growth combat the negative consequences of the epidemic, first of all, by supporting incomes at the highest possible level.

On the other hand, where export is the main driver of the economy, it is first necessary to support the sustainability of the current balance sheets of enterprises and keep jobs. That’s why Germany, which, they predict, will see a 10 percent economic decline in the first quarter, and Austria and the Netherlands, for the evening of April 8, strongly oppose the “uncontrolled printing of money.” Finally, it is not clear what long-term effect for the common market will come from the restoration of border controls and entry bans. “No less than the existence of the EU could be put at stake”,experts say.

The US growth model is highly questionable as well. While it leans on a fairly large service sector, significant exports, the main driver of the economy is consumer spending. According to critics, the American economy cannot survive a long period of national quarantine without catastrophic consequences. A total halt in economic activity will destroy the social fabric of society and bring the existing growth model down to its knees. However, a “reset” of the economy, which the Trump administration continues to dream about, “will turn the pandemic into a plague.”

Unlike the 2008 crisis, all the emergency measures taken by the FRS in recent weeks have not stabilized the markets. The more than two-trillion aid package, formally approved by the Congress, leaves the most burning question unanswered: who should be the recipients of this support, businesses or citizens? Usually, Washington chooses businesses. But in this case, the authorities face a dramatic upsurge in unemployment, which has not been observed for the past 60 years. Meanwhile, it is the employment factor that can become key in determining the winner in the upcoming presidential election. For the incumbent administration, Henry Kissinger points out, “public trust in American ability to manage the situation at home” is at stake.

A dual situation is observed in China. On the one hand, Beijing, according to official figures, has managed to at least put the epidemic under control. In economic terms, China is “in a strong position”, possessing the world’s largest reserves, significant liquid assets, and industrial capacities that can not only quickly compensate for the losses of recent months but give a new powerful impetus to Beijing’s greater economic presence throughout the world. At the same time, China is confronted with “the weakened and over-credited United States and Europe, which are threatened by a widespread financial crisis that will follow the collapse of their economies”.

On the other hand, the Chinese economy is heavily dependent on exports to other countries, which have declined sharply in recent months, and on imports, which suffer as well following closures of production facilities and ports around the world. In addition, China has reported an incessant slowdown over the past few years. The high debt of businesses and problems in the banking sector have worsened amid the “corona crisis”. In terms of global markets, China poses a threat to the US debt market if circumstances force Beijing to sell off dollar reserves. Finally, the slowdown, not to mention the decline of the Chinese economy, will play a major role in lowering commodity prices, since China holds the world’s second position in annual imports.

Lower-priced commodities can destabilize the economies of dozens of developing countries that depend on their exports. On March 30, UNCTAD published a report stating that “for developing countries, the consequences of the pandemic … proved worse than what they had to go through in 2008.” Devaluation hit particularly hard on Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and South Africa. According to UNCTAD experts, the shortage of funds for developing countries to fulfill their financial obligations in 2020 and 2021 will amount to up to 2 trillion. dollars. “This could lead to a debt crisis in which many direct and indirect lenders in industrially developed countries will be dragged into.” Finally, in many developing countries, most people have no savings and governments do not have enough funds to support those who have lost their jobs. Even a relatively short nationwide quarantine can send the economies of such countries into decline. According to media reports, by April 6, “at least 85 states had turned to the IMF for assistance.”

According to pessimists, there is a good reason to believe that the longer the quarantine lasts, the greater structural damage it will cause to any economy. The professional skills of workers, as well as their social networks, will also be affected. According to optimists, “America and Europe will put the economic crisis out with money, while incomes lost due to the epidemic will be reimbursed from the budgets and all problems will be sent into the infinitely distant future.” And the economic models that demonstrated growth before the Covid-19 crisis will return to it within 2-3 years.

Finally, governments in many countries will surely resort to measures aimed at restoring or expanding national production in strategically important sectors, including the food and medical industries. Domestic market support policy is gaining popularity again. “This is in line with the strategy of Donald Trump in the USA, the strategy of Boris Johnson in the UK and Shinzo Abe in Japan. The goal is not so much as to limit international trade, but to create a sound domestic market, which will make it possible to reduce its dependence on conflicts and the blows of world trade ”.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, the authorities in most countries will have to spend “much more than they think.” The consequences of the pandemic in the form of rising government debt and spikes in inflation will not take long to present themsevles. Markets may find themselves “replaced by governments”; and people in most countries of the world “will want to restore national prerogatives, especially regarding … the health sector.”

Any strategy adopted by the authorities in the current conditions will entail significant social and economic damage. Therefore, a search for the best model for adapting the economy to the comprehensive challenge of the pandemic will most likely be conducted by trial and error. The errors, unfortunately, will cost human lives. In the end, countries that succeed in picking a more effective model will gain a tangible advantage in economic competition in the “post-virus” world.

From our partner International Affairs

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Can The Lessons of 2008 Spare Emerging Europe’s Financial Sector From The COVID-19 Cliff?

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The more we know about the past, the better we can prepare for the future. The 2008 financial crisis provides important lessons for policymakers planning the COVID-19 recovery in 2021.

Over 10 years ago, the world stumbled into a financial crisis that changed the very fabric of our societies.

A cocktail of lax financial regulation and casual attitudes toward debt and leverage led to a global fallout that few countries in the world escaped. Despite a decade of recovery, the scars of that era are still very visible. This was particularly true for many parts of Europe. And as is often the case in major disasters, both natural and man-made, the most vulnerable were hardest hit.

Striking parallels

Today, as countries grapple with the economic impacts of Covid-19, policymakers in emerging Europe must strive to remember the hard-learned lessons from 2008. In financial terms, the parallels between now and then are striking.

Back then, countries in Central and Southeastern Europe were among the worst hit. In the run-up to the crisis, big euro area banks bought up local subsidiaries. Backed by these parent banks, credit started expanding rapidly from a very low base. The credit boom was accompanied by climbing real estate prices and mounting personal and corporate debt. Aspirations to replicate the living standards of the EU’s wealthiest member states led to citizens and businesses shouldering more than they could handle.

Suddenly, the global crisis stopped capital flows in the region and turned the boom to bust. Credit growth went into reverse, real estate prices nosedived, economic growth stalled, and non-performing loans (NPLs) spiraled up. Over the next decade, much of the region would be caught between weak economic growth and lackluster financial sector performance.

Familiar feedback loop

Covid-19 is a strong contender for the worst economic shock in our lifetimes. In its aftermath, a familiar feedback loop is on the horizon: high leverage and depressed growth will amplify financial sector vulnerabilities in the months ahead.

True, banks in emerging Europe entered Covid-19 with stronger liquidity and capital buffers than before the global financial crisis, but they are far from immune. The longer the pandemic lasts, the more businesses and consumers are likely to struggle. Next come the debt defaults. Before the domino-chain of NPLs gains momentum and countries spiral into widespread financial crisis, policymakers must act. This means taking four overarching measures.

First, rising NPLs require a proactive and coordinated policy response. If banks resist writing down bad loans and continue to lend to zombie firms, the resulting credit crunch becomes longer and more severe. Policymakers were slow off the mark in 2008. Once they realised a coordinated response was needed, much of the damage was already done. In NPL resolution, the mere passage of time makes a bad situation worse, and policymakers and bankers need to respond early on to prevent the problem from spinning out of control.

Second, supervisors should engage with highly exposed banks and ensure that they fully provision for credit losses. An important lesson of the global financial crisis is that building bank’s capital is a requirement for resilient recovery. In this pandemic, banks have been asked to play an unprecedented role in absorbing the shock by supplying vital credit to the corporate and household sector. Policymakers should resist pressure to dilute existing rules. Soft-touch supervision doesn’t address the underlying issues and only kicks problems down the road. To credibly stick to the rules, regulators can conduct stress tests to identify undercapitalised banks.

Resolve, fairness, and transparency

Third, a timely and orderly exit strategy from debt relief and repayment moratoriums should be prioritised. Countries in Eastern and Southeastern Europe promptly introduced these plans when Covid-19 struck and to good effect. But prolonging such schemes comes with a hidden cost. It can weaken borrower repayment discipline, and give firms, that were already struggling before the pandemic, a fresh lease on life.

The question of when and how to phase out the measures does not have a simple answer. Nevertheless, the general principle should be to unwind them as soon as conditions permit. This could be done by gradually narrowing down the range of borrowers eligible for support so that only the viable enterprises are supported.

Fourth, distressed but potentially viable firms will need loan restructuring. To restore the commercial viability of ailing companies entails restructuring of their liabilities, matching payment schedules with expected income flows. Loan restructuring of non-viable borrowers, by contrast, will only lead to delaying inevitable losses.

There will be uncertainty about who can and cannot survive. An assessment will be needed to separate the lost cases and viable ones and everything in between. This will help release capital from underperforming sectors and propel more dynamic firms to drive renewed economic momentum.

We live in difficult times that require resolve, fairness, and transparency in policymaking. But these qualities are not easy to live up to in times of great uncertainty, heightened anxiety, and lack of access to relevant information. Fortunately, we can look to the past to glean lessons for the future. Now, it’s time we put them into practice.

Originally posted at Emerging Europe via World Bank

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The strategic thinking behind the EU-China investment deal

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Washington was understandably perplexed that a China-EU investment agreement was concluded a few weeks before the Biden administration, especially a  president who has been advocating for multilateralism and the restoration of trust and an alliance with the EU.

Some analysts argue the agreement is a big win for China by breaching the transatlantic partnership, while some scholars contend that Beijing has made historical concessions to Brussels, indicating the future lucrativeness of European business in China. Both are valid to some extent, but the strategic thinking of Beijing and Brussels behind the pact may have been overlooked.

Beijing’s strategic thinking

The EU has always been the favoured target for Beijing. Despite numerous rebrandings, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the admittedly core economic, infrastructure and diplomatic policy proposed by President Xi in 2013, was initially intended to connect with the EU, facilitating Eurasian economic integration. According to Hellenic Institute of Transport, there was no regular direct freight service between China and Europe in 2008, whereas in 2019, 59 Chinese cities and 49 European cities in 15 countries have been linked by the BRI.

Also, although the EU is situated within Western democratic thought, the views of EU members regarding China are diverse and relatively different from the US and other English-speaking countries. Germany and France, the key pillars of the EU, still allow the usage of Huawei, whereas the US, Australia, Canada and the UK have variably banned it. Italy is the only one to endorse the BRI in the G7, a group of major Western democracies. The summit of China and Central and Eastern European Countries, known as “17+1”, has been held since 2012, gaining certain support from some EU members, in spite of Brussels’ aversion.

Probably, in the Chinese diplomats’ perceptions, the post-Brexit EU may become much more approachable and pragmatic to China, a mysterious rising land from the East, in that European continent nations with different linguistic and cultural backgrounds have been living together for millennial generations, leading to a more diverse and pragmatic approach to Beijing.

As for compromises Beijing has made, some of them, such as various reforms of state-owned-enterprises, would have been the essential component of the Chinese economic agenda, but the intriguing point is the timing and astonishing scope of concessions. After seven years of drawn-out negotiation, Beijing suddenly started pushing this pact at the beginning of 2020, when the Covid-19 broke out globally, and the Sino-American trade war further exacerbated, leading to China’s reputation plummeting in the West.

Through Sino-American relations, I doubt that Beijing may have noticed, as Professor Susan Shirk, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State during the Clinton administration, pointed out, that even the American business community, benefitting enormously from the Chinese market, has not really “stepped forward to defend US-China relations, much less defend China”, which is rare in bilateral history.

Recently, President Xi Jinping even wrote a letter to encourage Starbucks’ former chairman Howard Schultz to repair Sino-American relations. Having observed this, Beijing thus decided to show a high level of sincerity and openness to European business elites, not only by economic reforms but also by promising to work on labour rights. The latter may not be a priority in Beijing, but Beijing conspicuously notes the ideological concerns of EU politicians in order to win the hearts and minds of Brussels.

Brussels’ strategic thinking

As for the EU, China has unquestionably been an attractive market. Calculated by purchasing power, China’s GDP has been de facto the largest economy for years. As the only positive-growth nation in 2020 among G20 members, China has the largest middle class, signifying potent consuming ability. Recent Chinese economic reforms primarily aim to promote consumption, which is the icing on the Chinese market’s cake, and this is also embedded in European views of China and the US.

The Pew Research Center has shown that more countries in Europe viewed China rather than the US as the world’s leading economy in 2019 and 2020. Also, more residents in Germany and France regarded US power and influence as threatening than China in 2018. Even with the new Biden administration, EU leaders anticipate a renewed trans-atlantic partnership but do not expect a sudden revolution of EU-American trade war, as bilateral trade disputes are structural and beyond Trump’s presidency.

More realistically, what is one of the major external concerns EU members face today? Back in the Cold War, the western expansion of the Soviet Union deeply disturbed European security, necessitating their consistent alliance with the US.

However, as Jonathan E. Hillman, a senior fellow at Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote: “Russia has nuclear weapons but also a one-trick economy focused on energy exports, a rusting military, and a declining population.” In particular, Russia has been increasingly challenged to maintain traditional influence in Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia, not to mention any comprehensive aggression to EU.

Furthermore, geographically, China is distant, and the EU does not have fundamental military interests in South China Sea but rather seeks to maintain peace and freedom of navigation for their shipping and trade, notwithstanding Brussels’ political friction with Beijing. But the large-scale uncontrolled migration from Africa and the Middle East may well be the EU’s main worry. However, regardless of some Western media ostensibly branding China as a neocolonialist in Africa, China has essentially supported the African economy via the BRI investment, creating local employment and purportedly discouraging the flow of a certain amount of immigrants to Europe. So, realistically, by signing the pact, the EU may keep the door open to cooperate with China in Africa.

On the flip side, if the EU sides with the US to the exclusion of China, what will happen to the EU? Certainly, Brussels will be praised by Washington politically, while the business sphere may be a different story. The recent Sino-Australian trade disputes indicate that “in the world of international commerce, democratic and strategic friends are often the fiercest rivals”, argued Professor James Laurenceson from the University of Technology Sydney, as Chinese tariffs against Australian goods have brought opportunities to businesses in America and New Zealand. So, US corporations in China must be delighted to see business space left by the EU companies because of possible EU-China trade skirmishes.

Sensibly, the EU is adopting an independent foreign policy to maintain autonomy between China and the US. More notably, as a third party during the Sino-American power competition, having signed a deal with Beijing, Brussels may possibly request Washington to offer more, thus maximizing its geopolitical and commercial interests.

Conclusion

To conclude, both sides made pragmatic decisions to sign the pact. Professor John Mearsheimer, at the University of Chicago, argued a few years ago that liberal dreams are great delusion facing international realities. China has executed a realist foreign policy since Deng Xiaoping’s reform, and this time, the EU may have woken up, because this deal signifies that geopolitical calculation has overtaken ideological divergence.

Author’s note: First published in johnmenadue.com

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The Silk Road passes also by the sea

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On December 30, 2020, China and the European Union signed an agreement on mutual investment.

After seven years of negotiations, during a conference call between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Ursula Von Der Leyen, President of the European Commission, with French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Council President Charles Michel, the “Comprehensive Agreement on Investment” (CAI) was adopted.

This is a historic agreement that opens a new ‘Silk Road’ between Europe and the huge Chinese market, with particular regard to the manufacturing and services sectors.

In these fields, China undertakes to remove the rules that have so far strongly discriminated against European companies, by ensuring legal certainty for those who intend to produce in China, as well as aligning European and Chinese companies at regulatory level and encouraging the establishment of joint ventures and the signing of trade and production agreements.

The agreement also envisages guarantees that make it easier for European companies to fulfil all administrative procedures and obtain legal authorisations, thus removing the bureaucratic obstacles that have traditionally made it difficult for European companies to operate in China.

This is the first time in its history that China has opened up so widely to foreign companies and investment.

In order to attract them, China is committed to aligning itself with Europe in terms of labour costs and environmental protection, by progressively aligning its standards with the European ones in terms of fight against pollution and trade union rights.

With a view to making this commitment concrete and visible, China adheres to both the Paris Climate Agreement and the European Convention on Labour Organisation.

China’s adherence to the Paris Agreement on climate and on limiting CO2 emissions into the atmosphere is also the result of a commitment by China that is not only formal and propagandistic. In fact, one of the basic objectives of the last five-year plan – i.e. the 13th five-year plan for the 2016-2020 period – was to “replace unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable growth… also with innovative, coordinated and environmentally friendly measures…”.

In the five-year period covered by the 13th five-year plan, China reduced its CO2 emissions by 12% – a result not achieved over the same period by any other advanced industrial country, which shows that the policy of “going green”, so much vaunted by European institutions, has actually begun in China, to the point of making it realistic to achieve “zero emissions” of greenhouse gases by 2030, thanks to the decision to completely relinquish the use of fossil fuels in energy production.

President Xi Jinping has entrusted China’s policy of “turning green” to the Chinese government’s “rising star”, Lu Hao, i.e. the young Minister of Natural Resources aged 47, who has been chosen as the political decision-maker and operational driving force behind a major project to modernise the country.

Lu Hao has an impressive professional and political record: an economist by training, he was initially appointed First Secretary of the “Communist Youth League”, and later served as deputy mayor of Beijing from 2003 to 2008. Governor of the Hejlongjiang Province (where 37 million people live),he has been serving as Minister of Natural Resources since March 2018.

He is the youngest Minister in the Chinese government and the youngest member of the Party’s Central Committee.

While entrusting Lu Hao with his Ministerial tasks, President Xi Jinping stressed, “we want green waters and green mountains… we do not just want much GDP, but above all a strong and stable green GDP.”

A “green GDP” is also one of the objectives of the “Recovery Plan” drawn up by the European Union to help its Member States emerge from the economic crisis caused by the Covid 19 pandemic through measures and investment in the field of renewable energy.

“Going green” may represent the new centre of gravity of relations between Europe and China, according to the operational guidelines outlined in the “Comprehensive Agreement on Investment” signed on December 30 last.

China’s commitment to renewables is concrete and decisive: in 2020 solar energy production stood at five times the level of the United States while, thanks to Lu Hao’s activism, in 2019 China climbed up the U.N. ranking of nations proactively committed to controlling climate change, rising from the 41st to the 33rd place in world rankings.

On January 15, Minister Lu Hao published an article in the People’s Daily outlining his proposals for the upcoming 14th Five-Year Plan.

During the five-year period, China shall “promote and develop the harmonious coexistence between man and nature, through the all-round improvement of resource use efficiency…through a proper balance between protection and development”.

In Lu Hao’s strategy – approved by the entire Chinese government – this search for a balance between environmental protection and economic development can be found in the production of electricity from sea wave motion.

Generating electricity using wave motion can be a key asset in producing clean energy without any environmental impact.

Europe has been the first continent to develop marine energy production technologies, which have spread to the United States, Australia and, above all, China.

Currently 40% of world’s population lives within 100 kilometres of the sea, thus making marine energy easily accessible and transportable.

Using the mathematical model known as SWAN (Simulating Waves Nearshore), we can see that along the South Pacific coasts there are energy hotspots every five kilometres from the shore, at a depth of no more than 22 metres. In other words, thanks to currents, waves and tides, the Pacific has a stable surplus of energy that can be obtained from the sea motion.

Today, energy is mainly obtained from water using a device known as “Penguin”, which is about 30 metres long and, when placed in the sea at a maximum depth of 50 metres, produces energy without any negative impact on marine fauna and flora.

Another key technology is called ISWEC (Inertial Sea Waves Energy Converter). This is a device placed inside a 15-metre-long floating hull which, thanks to a system of gyroscopes and sensors, is able to produce 250 MWh of electricity per year. It occupies a marine area of just 150 square metres and hence it allows to reduce CO2 emissions by a total of 68 tonnes per year.

ISWEC is an Italian-made product, resulting from research by the Turin Polytechnic Institute and developed thanks to a synergy between ENI, CDP, Fincantieri and Terna.

Italy is at the forefront in the research and production of technology that can be used for converting wave motion into ‘green’ energy. This explains the attention with which Chinese Minister Lu Hao looks to our country as a source of renewable energy development in China, as well as the commitment that the young Minister, urged by President Xi Jinping, has made to promote an extremely important cooperation agreement in the field of renewable energy between the Rome-based International World Group (IWG) and the National Ocean Technology Centre (NOTC), a Chinese research and development centre that reports directly to the Ministry of Natural Resources in Beijing.

The cooperation agreement envisages, inter alia, the development of Euro-Chinese synergies in the research and development of essential technologies in the production of “clean” energy from sea water, as part of a broad Euro-Chinese cooperation strategy that can support not only the Chinese government’s concrete and verifiable efforts to seriously implement the strategic project to reduce greenhouse gases and pollution from fossil fuels, but also support Italy in the production of “green” energy according to the guidelines of the European Recovery Plan, which commits EU Member States to using its resources while giving priority to environmental protection.

The agreement between IWG and NOTC marks a significant step forward in scientific and productive cooperation between China and Europe and adds another mile in the construction of a new Silk Road, i.e. a sea mile.

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