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How the West Faltered During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Authors: Ziyu He and Huaan Liao*

Not long ago, we were residing in the heart of Western Europe relishing sweet junior spring exchange lives, only to have them cut abruptly short by a sweeping pandemic that obscured the sun shining above outdoor cafes on lazy afternoons. In lieu of weekend getaways, we found ourselves scrambling onto a last-minute transatlantic ride back into the United States, lest a potential presidential order soon shuts its borders to. Unfortunately, our worst fear soon became the reality. On the shuttle ride from the airport terminal, news feeds flooded us with breaking alerts on Trump’s decision to close the border to foreigners coming from the Schengen zone. The entire fiasco was all too real—never could we have expected that so soon after the turmoil our parents experienced in China, this, too, would upend our lives for months to come with no end in sight.

As China wakes from the nightmare, the West, especially the US, struggles to flatten the curve. Though second waves of outbreak occurred sporadically, China has earned a prize it long desires—recognition for its leadership role during a time of crisis. At the same time, the West is faltering with no clear path ahead. After surpassing China in both total confirmed and death cases in the end of March, the US continued on a treacherous trajectory months after the outbreak. Fierce tension between state and federal governments and selfish decisions of the White House against its own allies are sabotaging US reputation even further. Across the Atlantic, UK prime minister Boris Johnson risked his life to testify for the inherent danger of the herd immunity strategy. When Western nations retreated from their previous roles as beacons of hopes during times of crisis, China stepped up its role in global governance, pledging material assistance to countries in need and touting its lockdown strategy. The sharp contrast between China’s success and the West’s failure has led many to question whether the COVID-19 pandemic will prove to be a “Suez Crisis” for the US and possibly the liberal world order.

So what has the West done wrong?

As all initial efforts to contain the virus failed within the first week of local outbreak in Western Europe and the US, serious measures came too late to stop sporadically imported cases from developing into a grave threat to national security. The confidence and calm Western leaders once evinced only became testaments to ignorance, arrogance, and irresponsibility.

Arguments acquitting Western leaders have been made by pointing out their lack of experience dealing with a pandemic as serious as COVID-19, deceptive reassurance from the Chinese authorities, and delay in WHO’s timely instructions. Settling for these excuses, however, signals weakness and resignation from the responsibility as global leaders. Although the lack of experience in handling global health crises can help explain the initial insouciance toward COVID-19, this ill-informed argument is not a total acquaintance, for not only could it have led the fight, it is also equipped with more means than anywhere else in the world. With more established medical infrastructure and the fortune of managing the health crisis not first but second to the outbreak in Asia, havoc in the West could have been assuaged if not averted altogether under rapid and effective policies in place.

Similarly, assigning blame to China and the WHO does Western countries more harm than good. It is no secret that the Chinese government silences dissidents, manipulates statistics, and restricts transparent journalism to protect its legitimacy and defend its rhetoric for audiences everywhere. Feigning astonishment and blaming heavy casualties on the Chinese government is thus either a testimony of the administration’s incompetence to anticipate imminent risks and allocate appropriate resources to combat the crisis domestically and globally or a foolish bet on the goodwill and transparency of Beijing. Neither is good publicity.

Ideological considerations, rather than pragmatic calculations, explain Western democracies’ failure to implement timely responses to the crisis. Though the fear of economic recession and lengthy democratic procedures in formulating a response surely contributed to Western administrations’ reluctance to lockdown economies, indiscriminate aversion of China’s “draconian” authoritarianism played a more important role in postponing stay-at-home guidelines and issuing lockdown orders as last resorts. In January, when Western media and leaders rushed to denounce China’s snap containment policies as extreme measures with no respect for basic human rights, lockdown essentially became a symbol of authoritarianism and a taboo for the Western world in the name of liberty and democracy.

This was made clear to us in February right after the outbreak in Italy. In our Spanish Politics class, the professor led a discussion about the contagion and asked for reactions. Students from different European countries and the US voiced their opinions, mostly denying any possibility that the virus may end the fun of weekend travels and dismissing lockdown as an unreasonable restriction to personal freedoms followed by “I know China did that, but I mean, it’s China…” The only dissenting opinion came from a girl from Taiwan, who lamented on the then already lacking supply of face masks from all pharmacies before most Spanish people even learned the name of the virus. Drumbeats and trumpets celebrating Day of Sant Medir still resounded on the streets of Barcelona as late as early March. Similarly in the US, without timely restrictions from each state, students celebrated the premature end to their semester with COVID-19 parties that were directly responsible for more infections. Racist sentiments against people of Asian descent in the West ironically caught on much more quickly than preventative measures.

Unfortunately, as the centers of the outbreak shifted from Wuhan to Italy and then New York, Western leaders were compelled to contradict their previous stances and issue lockdown orders, halting national economies to a standstill despite reluctance. As extraordinary measures like social distancing, closing of non-essential businesses, and stay-at-home orders became inevitable, Western countries handed the victory to Beijing. Not only was Europe and the US “following” China’s lead on implementing unprecedented restrictive orders to minimize exposure, they have also fallen steps behind due to their initial obstinate dismissal. As China recuperates after a month of “zero increase” while death tolls continue to increase at alarming rates worldwide, few can deny that China is becoming the safest place in the world. While China’s extreme measures are recognized and praised by the WHO as “a new standard of outbreak control,” Western leaders, especially President Trump, are experiencing confidence crises from domestic constituents.

Scientifically, preventing human contact offers the best hope of stopping the spread because COVID-19 can travel in aerosol from asymptomatic patients. Restrictive measures will slow it per the logic of nature, and determination to avoid “authoritarian measures” serves only political motives at the cost of millions. Western policymakers failed to distinguish the concept of lockdown and China’s implementation of it. Scientific measures such as social distancing and lockdown should not carry political color, even when China’s execution violates many basic principles of a just government. When China issued lockdown orders, it ignored the wellbeing of small business and vulnerable individuals, stranding thousands in foreign cities without assistance. The lack of planning and coordination caused multiple scandals during the lockdown: the price of necessities and protective gear skyrocketed; the Hubei Red Cross hoarded medical supplies donated to local hospitals, and high-level officials were exposed expropriating masks from pharmacies and Red Cross warehouses.

Beijing and Wuhan should not be criticized because they resorted to lockdown as a way to control the outbreak but because they disregarded the lives and wellbeing of their own citizens. China implemented restrictive orders through command rather than consensus. As current situations demonstrate, the West could have adopted similar policies much earlier without putting the welfare of millions in jeopardy—what true leadership should have been like, instead of playing an opportunistic game of petty politics. Measures to aid the economy and individuals, including state-funded job retention schemes and appeals to big banks to stop stock buybacks to bail out clients, accompanied lockdown orders in Western administrations’ policy considerations but were not implemented in China. Voices calling attention to the collapse and disappearance of small businesses were censored on Chinese social media platforms for “breaking rules and regulations,” further attesting to the woes of an authoritarian regime. Actions as such made China “authoritarian”, not the lockdown itself.

Though East Asian democracies such as South Korea and Taiwan demonstrated alternative and more efficient paths of outbreak control, ignoring and rejecting the merit of China’s efforts is a dangerous sign of hubris and ignorance. As the West squandered the opportunity to “know its enemy” by learning from China’s success and failure, it effectively conceded victory to China, at least for now.

For the first time, a major setback of Western democracies was not brought by natural causes—the COVID-19 virus—or external enemies—China—but by the very fear and insecurity the West itself possessed. Though strong rhetoric condemning China’s atrocious human rights records and clandestine political maneuvers exudes confidence as the West chants aloud the slogan of freedom and justice, insecurity about China’s increasing economic prowess, political clout, and military capabilities alert Western countries as the rise of populism shifts policy focus from global prestige to domestic prosperity. Facing a rising competitor who aspires to command greater influence and become a rule-maker for the international order, the West has resorted to craven condemnations rather than confident example-setting actions. The COVID-19 crisis could have been a showcase opportunity for the West, especially the US, to consolidate its global leadership status by demonstrating the best practices of outbreak control and providing public goods for the international community. Instead, retreat from global responsibilities and the fear of mimicking a “draconian” lockdown made China the hero and the West the disheartened losers who barely protect itself. As more countries push back against China’s attempt to retell the story of the COVID-19 outbreak and its successful response, the West still has a chance to redress its mistake, though the window of opportunity will not stay open for long.

As competitions between China and the West elevates to a value-clash between efficient authoritarianism and free democracy, the West has repeatedly emphasized the value of personal freedom and autonomy. Protests frequently erupted amidst challenging lockdown orders. The zealous quest for personal freedom has held back a nobler pursuit for justice. Caring for the vulnerable and upholding a fair and just system is what made the West leaders of the world decades ago, and so should its priority be today. Freedom should serve as a building block to that system, never a stumbling rock.

*Huaan (Amber) Liao, from Xi’an, China, studies Global Business with a European Studies Certificate at Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service. She spent a semester abroad at Esade Business School in Barcelona, Spain. She has researched for The Brookings Institution’s China Center.

Ziyu (Harry) He studies Asian Studies with a minor in Political Science at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and is currently on an exchange program at the University of Oxford. He currently works as a research assistant at in the Georgetown Security Studies Department.

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East Asia

The Xinjiang-Uyghur issue

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In late March the United States, Canada, the UK and the EU took a concerted action to announce sanctions over human rights violations against the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang-Uyghur by the Chinese government.

This is the first time since the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 that the EU and the UK have imposed sanctions on China over human rights issues.

Furthermore, Australia and New Zealand also issued statements expressing support for joint U.S. and EU sanctions against China. U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken stated: “The joint transatlantic operation sends a strong signal to those who violate or trample on international human rights”.

This joint operation is clearly part of a concerted U.S. effort to work with its Western allies against China through diplomatic actions.

After gruelling wars in Korea and Vietnam and later in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria,we wonder:

1) why do we want to open another front to export democracy with bombs?

2) Why has the Xinjiang-Uyghur issue become a deadly matter that brings the United States and its allies together to impose sanctions on China, while ignoring the barbaric behaviours codified by the backward-looking, but allied Gulf monarchies?

3) Why is the Xinjiang-Uyghur issue attracting increasing attention from the international community?

4) Why does the United States use the Xinjiang-Uyghur human rights issues to shape a diplomatic action with Western allies against China and forget about the black people being murdered on the streets at home?

Let us try to better understand the situation.

The strategic importance of Xinjiang-Uyhgur for China is similar to Tibet’s (Xizang). The Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region is the largest provincial unit in China. It covers one-sixth of China’s territory and borders on Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. It can be used as a base by China to influence its neighbours. However, Xinjiang-Uygur can be used as a bridgehead by external powers to threaten China’s territorial integrity.

Like Tibet (Xizang), Xinjiang-Uyghur also has immense economic value in terms of oil and gas resources, and it can also be used as a channel to import energy from Kazakhstan. It is also a site for Chinese nuclear weapons and missile tests.

This area has traditionally been under the influence of various forces that have been claiming these territories. For thousands of years, the deserts and mountains of Xinjiang-Uygur were crossed by merchants. Peoples and armies passed through it continuously, sometimes forming alliances with the Middle Empire, sometimes to free themselves from the Emperor’s influence, only to fall into worse hands.

The Chinese who started to travel there before the 19th century met Persians and Muslims, most of whom were Turkish-speaking. It is not for nothing that the other name of the territory is East Turkestan.

The region was not fully incorporated into the Chinese administrative system until 1884, when it was divided into province and called Xinjiang, meaning “new frontier”. China’s control, however, was fragile and, when China’s presence was still at a minimum in 1944, the local population announced the establishment of a short-lived republic called East Turkestan, backed by the Soviet Union led by Stalin, who – like the United States today – wanted it to fall within his sphere of influence.

However, as Stalin was a great statesman and not just a parvenu, with the birth of the People’s Republic of China, the Georgian leader agreed that the territory be reintegrated into the Middle Empire as the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region.

With a view to strengthening administrative and political control in the autonomous region, the People’s Republic of China used the same methods in other surrounding areas: immigration development, trade, cultural assimilation, administrative integration and international isolation.

As early as the mid-18th century, the Qing government had created a national industry near the capital Ürümqi. In the 19th century, Chinese merchants arrived in large numbers. After 1949, the People’s Republic of China placed the autonomous region under a national plan designed to orient and direct local trade towards China’s internal economy, banning border trade and people movements that were widespread in the past between borders that at the time were undefined and misgoverned.

In 1954 China established the Xinjiang-Uyghur Semi-Military Production and Construction Corps to transfer demobilised officers and soldiers, as well as other Chinese immigrants, to industries, mines and enterprises. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, thousands of middle school graduates were delegated to perform tasks in Xinjiang-Uyghur from various cities in China, especially Shanghai, and most of them lived in farms. I remember the great enthusiasm of some major European parties at this news: the same parties that, having changed their names, are today shedding “the bitter tears of Petra von Kant” along with Biden.

In the 2010 census – according to official statistics – out of 21,815,815 inhabitants, 45.4% were Uyghurs and 40.48% Chinese, although the real number could be even higher. The many officially recognised ethnic minorities included Kazakhs and Muslims of Chinese ethnicity.

In the decades prior to 1980, Xinjiang-Uygur developed slowly because of its bordering on the then hostile post-1960 Soviet Union, and because of its rugged and considerable distance from other parts of China. However, when Deng Xiaoping implemented reforms in the 1980s, China’s development policy created demand for Xinjiang-Uyghur’s coal, oil and gas resources, thus making the local area one of China’s largest producers of fossil fuels.

In the 1990s, China began building oil pipelines to transport oil from the far West to the mainland market. In 2001, China announced a “Western development” policy to fully exploit Xinjiang-Uyghur’s resources. The central government invested billions of dollars to build infrastructure and create political incentives to attract national and foreign companies.

This has meant that the country has increased its per capita GDP, as well as raised the education level. China has also modernised its society and this has made it unpopular with those fundamentalist Muslims who, boiling with terrorist rage, are now calling for help from those who initially funded ISIS to bring the secular Syrian government down, under the slogan “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

For most of the Maoist era, the Uyghurs, as well as the less numerous Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other ethnic minorities, were forced to give up Islam, learn Chinese and relinquish their traditional customs and habits. All this much to the delight of the then epicurean and atheist West, which has always despised faith: a further element of contrast that later materialized on the part of fundamentalists.

As in Tibet (Xizang), the most traditionalist Uyghurs believe that their land has been invaded by Chinese immigrants and their lives are overwhelmed by a “Western” style imposed authoritatively from outside: a pretext that President Erdoğan has been the first to exploit, not failing to include it in his Panturanist conception.

In fact, after the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Turkic and immigrant Uyghur communities in the three new neighbouring States of Central Asia, namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, experienced a cultural and religious revival, thus creating a new sense of hope and power among the Uyghurs in Xinjiang-Uyghur.

From the 1980s to 2001, demonstrations, riots, occasional murders and terrorist attacks occurred with increasing frequency. The Chinese government claims that the criminals’ goal is 1) to separate Xinjiang-Uyghur from China, and 2) that the Uyghur separatists are terrorists connected to al-Qaeda.

All these accusations are controversial, because most Uyghurs – either secular or moderate Sunni Muslims – have not created a resistance movement at all, as the Uyghur society is not integrated around specific Islamist parameters.

Many incidents seem to have various and sometimes personal causes, and often result in casualties. But, in any case, the authorities have launched a series of strict public order campaigns, fearing that even the slightest sign of dissent, such as a demonstration, a parade, a march, a gunfight with the police, will be amplified by the usual media to pave the way for a bloody local civil conflict, which – unlike the Syrian one – could turn into the Third and Last World War.

All this would certainly not be triggered to protect some fundamentalist Muslims in defence of human rights. The causes are always the same.

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East Asia

Chinese Foreign Policy in a Global Perspective

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Foreign policy plays a fundamental role in state security and government’s decision-making. It is the pivotal factor for political stability of a nation, its economic affairs as well as the relations with other states. It is necessary for the development of a nation or a region to resolve the disputes with their neighbors. International disputes have frequently been given a fair chance with dialogue between the warring parties. Different states can coexist with friendly neighbor resulting in greater benefit for the people of the country. It brings peace and stability in the region as a byproduct. For the progress of humanity, peace is an essential element. To avoid war and hostility, an element of understanding and mutual survival should be established among the states. Hence, the concerned states will learn to co-exist peacefully.

Since its independence, China has pursued a focused approach towards attaining financial progress. Diplomatic policy of China has been directed towards its economic prosperity and political independence of the Chinese nation. Initially it was an isolated nation with introspective policies. Its national policy characteristics included peaceful co-existence between nations, mutual interdependence, regional supremacy, autonomy, national safety and avoidance of conflicts with other states and nations. Hence China developed regional influence and stability and developed good relations internationally and globally. China wanted to protect its territorial autonomy and sovereignty of other regional nations as well. Hence it soon emerged as a powerful nation both militarily and economically.

China continued working on a deliberate path of stable and good relations with other countries globally. The role of leaders and government in the foreign affairs under Xi-Jinping’s leadership catapulted the Chinese national and foreign policy to new heights. This charismatic leadership brought constructive changes in the internal governance and matters of foreign involvement with other nations. He emphasized the importance of military and during his governance astounding improvement in foreign and regional stability was observed.  The internal stability of Chinese national policy was soon reflected on the international podium. Its economic prosperity increased astronomically under the vigilant governance of the leader of China’s political party. China rose peacefully and gained regional, economic, and political stability. China is today considered as a world-wide power because of its stable national policy. It has observed a radical development in geo-politics. Why has the significance of Chinese nation increased in the international community?

China and Pakistan have enjoyed friendly relations with each other for decades. Gwadar port will become a doorway for business, commerce, collaboration, coordination and development between these two neighbours. It does not only affect China and Pakistan’s economic prosperity but the prosperity of South Asia and beyond. China has achieved worldwide recognition as an economic might with powerful impact on economy, geography and strategy of the region. The port has worldwide implications, whether related to economy, trade or commercial activities.

The dimension of foreign policy has evolved with the pace of time. The relations between China and United States of America are complicated. Both nations have difference of opinion regarding vital concerns of the state, political practices, administration, diplomatic policies and commercial productivity. Both nations consider different notions regarding the concept of civil rights. President Donald Trump has recognized China as an adversary for the United States of America. According to his beliefs, China abhors the ethics and principles of America causing a destabilizing effect in South-China Sea region.

China has undertaken military action in the South China Sea and has carried naval exercises in the area. However, United States the opponent of China says that economic prosperity could be affected because of the Chinese presence in the region. Under international regulations, overseas armed forces are not able to control surveillance activities including inspection and scrutiny of the vessels, in its industrial zone. However, China remains unsuccessful to resolve this clash by diplomatic ways. This would result in de-stabilizing the South-China Sea region. Conflict between Philippines and China may rise as a consequence of American backing. To further its economical and safety concerns, United States has laid down bold claims regarding China’s occupation of  territory and land in the South China Sea. On the other hand, Japan has sold naval ships to Philippines and Vietnam to enhance their naval protection and discourage Chinese hostility.The relationship between India and China is of worldwide significance. India is a prospering nation in the South Asian region. India perceives China as a militant anathema. China can hamper India’s progress in economical prosperity and can shackle India’s image internationally. Another challenge for India is the Pakistan-China relations. China’s influence can be spread globally which could be inimical to India’s scrutiny. China’s dominance, geographical vicinity and strategies depict an image of instability to India’s national  and international interests. India cannot protect its interests and has to make crucial strategic decisions. However if India makes United States it will be able to protect its national interests. India has to overcome many challenges and hurdles as China has dominant influence over the South-Asian region and beyond. Asia’s old opponents China and India are now engaging in a race to initiate maritime assets and to gain influence over each other. India’s wants China to behave according to international regulations. To respect territorial righteousness, and thoughtfulness for all nations irrespective of their magnitude. Both China and India will continue to hustle over the South Asian region, its territory and resources.

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East Asia

Exploring China’s National Salvation in the 1911 Revolution

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The 1911 Revolution, also known as the Chinese Revolution or the Xinhai Revolution, brought an end to China's last imperial dynasty, the Manchu-led Qing dynasty, and resulted in the creation of the Republic of China on January 1, 1912. (photo from baidu)

When the First Opium War broke out in 1840, China became a semi-colonial and semi-feudal nation ruled by foreign powers. The final years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), which saw the demise of the imperial regime, were marked by degradation and incompetence; the people were thrown into disorder, and the Chinese nation was plunged into a pit of misery.

During those dark ages, it became clear that the Chinese people would have to overturn feudal autocratic rule and undergo profound social reform in order to gain national freedom. More than a century ago, Revolutionary Party members led by Sun Yat-sen launched the 1911 Revolution, shocking the world and causing unprecedented social change in China.

While living in exile in Honolulu in November 1894, Sun Yat-sen, the father of the Modern China, founded the Xingzhonghui (Society for China’s Regeneration), clearly proposing the first program for a Chinese democratic revolution. Between 1895 and 1911, the Xingzhonghui and Tongmenghui (Chinese Revolutionary League) launched ten uprisings. The Restoration Society also instigated several uprisings across China, sowing the seeds of revolution.

Sun Yat-sen proposed a political program based on the Three People’s Principles: nationalism, democracy, and people’s livehood. A large number of revolutionaries and patriots gathered under his leadership to revitalize China and spread revolutionary ideas. This active progressive wave provided a significant impetus to the formation trends.

On October 10, 1911, gunfire signaled the start of the Revolution of 1911 in Wuchang, Central China, which became known as the “Wuchang Uprising”; other provinces responded, and within a month, 15 had declared their independence. The Republic of China was formally established on January 1, 1912, ending a monarchy that had existed in China for over 2,000 years.

The 1911 Revolution, which overthrew the Qing Dynasty, lasted more than 260 years. It was also a democratic revolution that occurred against the backdrop of an increasingly decaying Qing Dynasty, deepening imperialist aggression, and the early rise of Chinese nationalism. Its goal was to overthrow the Qing Dynasty’s despotic rule, save the nation from danger, and strive for national independence, democracy, and prosperity.

With its new politics and ideology, the 1911 Revolution provided a liberation mechanism for the Chinese people that should not be underestimated. It instilled in people a strong sense of democracy and republicanism. Anti-imperialist and anti-feudal struggles intensified, with the 1911 Revolution serving as a new starting point. By overthrowing the Qing Dynasty, it spread the concept of democracy and promoted social changes in modern China by leveraging its massive shock power and profound influence.

However, due to the constraints imposed by historical processes and social conditions, it was unable to change the social nature of semi-colonialism and people’s miserable situation, nor achieve national independence and people’s liberation. It did, however, pioneer a full-fledged national democratic revolution, vigorously promoted the ideological emancipation of the Chinese nation, laid the groundwork for China’s progress, and explored the path for its future development.

Sun Yat-sen had a charismatic personality, a singular commitment to power, and a knowledge of the West unparalleled by any of his political rivals, which distinguished him and made him an icon of Chinese modernization. He was appropriately dubbed a “revolutionary pioneer” by the Chinese Communists.

This is a great historical process of exploring and realizing national independence, as well as the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, which has emerged after many ups and downs and various vicissitudes.

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