Oceania has discovered itself in the last 15 years as a newly appealing region for world powers. As a matter of fact, right after the Cold War, it loses a bit of its pivotal position upon which many events had hinged, but as China continues to grow, and western countries notice, Oceania has regained increasing attention.
As far as maritime challenges are concerned, we shall proceed keeping in mind that, of the players territorially present here, three are close allies of the US with a good naval capabilities (Japan, 5th largest fleet) and with which the US have an excellent intelligence sharing relationship (the Five eyes –Australia and New Zealand plus UK and Canada); and the opponent (China) to the US’s hegemony which apparently is not willing to put in place aggressive military actions, but through its soft power (i.e. economic and political pressure) is building up a new system of relations. The scope of this debrief is to shed a light on the Pacific Island Countries’ (PICs) maritime issues within the perspective of the US-China contrast.
As shown by the declarations of the Fiji’s ambassador in the US in 2019 at a CSIS event, the PICs are particularly worried about the inconclusiveness of US presidents’ doctrines, both Obama and Trump, which stated indeed a renewed interest for the Pacific, stressed by an active securing of sea lanes as well as by numerous warnings of being careful of the “Chinese debt trap”, but without, in fact, taking any action toward what the PICs really consider to be relevant to their survival. That is, monitoring of polluters and resources plunderers, of climate change issues like the rising sea level and shores erosion: in general, natural disasters, which for PICs are an actual threat, like the cyclone that in February 2018 destroyed both the Parliament of Tonga and $150 million in crops.
Therefore, as put by Jonathan Pryke, director of the Lowy Institute (an Australian non-profit thinktank mainly based on donations) at the CSIS event, US policymakers’ insensitivity toward PICs may bring about a rapprochement with China. In fact, although the volume of US’s and Australia’s investments in the PICs is yet to be caught up by China, there has been a trend over the years through lending practices, major infrastructure projects for airports and highways (under the OBOR) and much more. From 2011 to 2017, China has committed more than $5.2 billion in investments and granted $518 million (according to the Lowy Institute) to PICs, for sectors like road upgrading (Fiji, $136 million; Papua New Guinea, $85 million), wharf redevelopment (Vanuatu, $85 million) and governmental buildings (Samoa, $52 million). All these projects were generically addressed to by the Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific in 2018, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, as “useless buildings”. These words sum up Australia’s concerns over the new level of expenditures in China, reinforced by Prime Minister Morrison’s statements who openly admitted, in 2019, how his country has taken for granted its influence in the Southwest Pacific. It is also true that while China invests millions in road upgrade and critical infrastructure, Australia has spent $219 million to improve medical care, donating drugs and vaccines or promoting initiatives of health education.
At a more meticulous look, the relationship between the PICs and Australia is something more than an economic bond. The PICs are mostly dependent on foreign aid to carry on their political existences and Australia has been obviously attentive of their needs, committing grants, from 2011 to 2017, for about $5.9 billion. For instance: PICs’ maritime security does not merely involve nature-linked issues, but also illegal, unreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing, alongside drug smuggling from Latin America to Australia, which have caused a loss of about $616 million per year. In order to prevent these crimes, twelve of the PICshave agreed to have Australia sent them every three months until 2023 a newly built Guardian-class patrol boat and in 2020 Fiji, Palau, Kiribati and Tonga will receive them. Without an external assistance, these islands would find themselves in a dangerously precarious situation.
The nature of the bond between the PICs and Australia is very different from that between them and China, founded on sheer economic bases. On the other hand, if Australia’s spending on foreign aid continues to dwindle, like it has been doing since 1974 from 0,47% of GDP to 0,22% in 2018, there might begin to blow winds of change. What Australia (and New Zealand to a certain extent) have to be careful of is not to indulge too much in the PICs’ forbearance with unbalanced agreements or sudden and explicit withdrawal, which politically may result in a serious loss of a strategic ally in favor of China, regardless of the several “debt trap” reminders. Unbalanced agreements, like the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus (PACER Plus), which is basically a free trade agreement that, given that the PICs’ already have a nearly duty-free access to Australia and New Zealand, will not bring any major change for them, but it will definitely drop tariffs for Australian and New Zealand goods and, as the New Zealand’s government puts it, “[to] “preserve New Zealand’s position against major competitors from outside of the region in the years to come”.
As for the other side of the board, Japan, France and the US too constantly try to reverse these anti-western trends, oftentimes acting in concert, given, after all, their significant past or position in the region. As a matter of fact, France’s largest EEZ worldwide (thanks to its overseas territories, accounting for 97% of its EEZ) gives a broad room for maneuvers which are usually backed both by the US (with military bases in Guam and in the Marshall Islands) and Japan, with Shinzo Abe’s doctrine of an “open and free Indo-Pacific”. Their shared interests to secure the area (geopolitically from China, economically from crime) are expressed through many projects and agreements with the PICs.
PICs’ limited capacity of governance of their maritime domains has been attractive for Japan, that has a per capita EEZ surface much smaller than that of most of the PICs, with which it has established a dialogue to cope with the vast and unguarded marine areas. Not directly through governmental channels, but through the NGO Nippon foundation led by Yohei Sasakawa, in light of Japan’s impossibility to partake in military and navy activities whose nature goes beyond their own defense. For example, it has facilitated the setup of the maritime coordination center in Palau, in full operational capacity in January 2018, as well as the installation of a surveillance system in the Malacca strait and the handover of patrol boats to Micronesian countries. As reported by Dr. Rieko Hayakawa, founder of the Sasakawa Pacific Islands Fund, the USPACOM and US Coastal Guard have recognized as positively proactive the Japanese efforts in the region to enhance maritime security.
Moving on to another historical US ally, with a presence of more than 7000 defense personnel and tens of units among vessels, aircrafts and helicopters, France’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific is facing both environmental and non-traditional security issues (drug smuggling, IUU fishing, piracy, human trafficking, etc.), whose solutions are articulated within formal dialogues with western countries and PICs. As for climate change and natural disasters, France has demonstrated a strong commitment to humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HA/DR) exercises (like “Croix du Sud”), not to mention its proposal in 2017, at the South Pacific Defense Ministers Meeting (SPDMM), to coordinate members’ navies and armies (Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga, plus the United States and United Kingdom as observers) for a deeper study on the impact of climate change. As for non-traditional security, France, alongside Australia, New Zealand and the US, constitutes the Quadrilateral Defense Coordination Group (QUAD), which manifests itself as a dialogue platform where maritime surveillance and military cooperation (principally against IUU fishing) are discussed. France’s privileged position of New Caledonia and Polynesia has recently guaranteed successes like the arrest of three Vietnamese so-called “blue boats”, that were fishing illegally offshore New Caledonia. Within the margins of the QUAD, the French forces have joined the numerous multinational operations under the Fisheries Agency of the Pacific Islands Forum (FFA), founded in 1979, currently with 17 members, that are PICs and Australia and New Zealand.
All these efforts are framed in the long institutionalized presence of the US in the western Pacific. Their influence is concretized through well-established organizations like the already-mentioned Pacific Islands Forum and QUAD, and also more recent initiatives like the biennial series of warfare exercises RIMPAC, the first in 2004, for which the US have recently extended an invitation to Fiji to join in summer 2020 (with slight changes to the pandemic).In 2019, the Trump administration has persisted in the predecessor’s recalibration to Asia, investing in the PICs, additionally to the annual $350 million, amounts like$36.5 million in August and $63.5 million in September, principally for development assistance linked to their associated states like the Marshall Islands, Guam, American Samoa, Federates states of Micronesia and Palau but also Fiji and Papua New Guinea. Most of this $350 million, in 2018,was redirected to the Foreign Military Financing to strengthen maritime security and law enforcement cooperation ($290 million); a minor part of that sum was redirected to economic development, infrastructure building and protection of environment (about $30 million). Without going through each sector of investment, it is enough to say that the US have improved their engagement but perhaps paying “too much” attention to ensuring their strategic role while neglecting areas of concerns that, as the Fiji Ambassador in the US put it above, consist of a more pragmatic nature which is not rooted in geostrategic games but in the needs of their people.
But what about now? The pandemic has revealed the structural problem afflicting Oceania, despite the number of cases was never high. Dependency on tourism has shown its limit and not only in their case (see Italy). The severe lockdown’s consequences will surely lead PICs to seriously reconsider their economic strategy. In the meantime, where will the help come from? Within certain institutions (IMF, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank), the procedures for requesting disaster relief funds or more flexibility have been already activated. In Oceania, the impact of the pandemic itself has not been violent (but its effects will be).Today, the power games will be nevertheless played within the same context of relationships, but the question iswhat kind of response countries will offer and whether it fits accordingly with PICs’ needs.
India-ASEAN relations under Vietnam Chairmanship of ASEAN
India has very recently come out with India-ASEAN Action Plan 2021-2025 alluding to the objectives for furthering its relationship with the ASEAN nations. In the plan it is clearly envisaged that there will be cooperation in the area such as trade, investment, counterterrorism and in developing the edifice related to maritime security. It has been found that under the Vietnam chairmanship there is a need for addressing challenges emerging in the field of pandemics and medical research, so as to protect lives of many individuals across southern Asia. Further, in terms of increasing connectivity between the two sides and reviewing the achievements of the India ASEAN strategic partnership there has been positive movement from both sides.
With the forthcoming India ASEAN summit to be held in near future, it is going to address issues such as maritime corporation, sustainable development, developing marine resources, connectivity in both physical and digital domains, and increasing people to people contact through initiatives such as health, education and tourism. An important aspect of this new action plan is to enhance defence exercises, coordinated patrols, and effective logistics support mechanisms during humanitarian assistance and natural disasters. In fact, one of the major milestones between India and ASEAN strategic partnership has been in the field of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. In the last few years there has been increasing synergy in the areas such as counterterrorism, cyber security and medical tourism. ASEAN has undertaken new initiatives related to the fourth industrial revolution, and also been looking into developing better cooperation with other countries in areas such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics.
India has been conducting multiple joint exercises, and entered into logistics agreement with countries such as France, Australia, the US, Singapore and Japan. Increasing need has been felt in terms of developing freedom of navigation and commerce in the critical sea lanes of communication as well as promoting no use of force and resolution of long impending maritime disputes through the UNCLOS, and develop mechanisms to address concerns related to ASEAN countries.
It has been acknowledged that India-ASEAN free trade agreement has benefitted economies but there is a need for a review so that new sectors and also free movement of the skilled labour could be promoted. During the review of India-ASEAN relations particularly in the field of trade and strategic partnership, it was found that in terms of meeting of connectivity objectives there has been laggardness in the approach. However, there is a lot of potential with regard to developing ties in digital economy, education, vocational training of labour, and also capacity building in areas such as Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs).
India’s subscription to the concept of Indo-Pacific and its meetings with the quad members have highlighted the possibility of a superstructure which can be created which will be able to address core concerns with regard to regional security, maritime code of conduct and undertaking concerted efforts so as to bring up accountability and compliance for better peace and development in the region. One of the areas which has been and listed in the India ASEAN action plan is to look for complementarities in areas such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and sharing best practices with regard to the Industrial Revolution 4.0. One of the consultative process which has lost steam over a period of time is the Delhi Dialogue which have become more repetitive in terms of agenda and ideas, and there is scarcity of ideas. However, this regular dialogue process has brought about Track I and Track II consultations involving academics, experts and foreign officials as well as leaders.
With increasing attention of the European Union to this region, and the major European powers have outlined their Indo-Pacific strategy; Southeast Asia, by default, has become epicentre for launching these initiatives. It has become pertinent that India should also explore possibilities of building up resilient supply chains and help in development of the areas along with infrastructure development so that investment and development spin-offs in the region can also benefit India in the long run. It has been found that processes such as ADMM plus which have been discussing the areas of maritime security, counterterrorism has found resonance within India. In the areas such as mine countermeasures and developing humanitarian action plan for the demining there are complementarities which are existent in the relationship.
ASEAN outlook towards Indo Pacific is one of areas which is unexplored, and needs further focus with Asian centrality being the primary goal. ASEAN nations have been working with regard to comprehensive action plan related to counterterrorism and therefore much more focus is required under Vietnam chairmanship to build consensus and institute necessary structures so that the cooperation at the official level can continue in the long run.
India has not developed its counter radicalisation strategy and therefore it is important that ASEAN should share best practices with India. One of the focus areas which has been enlisted in the action plan is related to financial architecture and the cooperation which is required for the development of the capital markets and developing new ways for financial transactions through secure means.
Energy cooperation has been one of the areas which is of importance for both ASEAN nations as well as India but for that to fructify it is important that the both sides should look forward for research in energy efficiency, fuel cell technology and developing electric vehicles so as to curb pollution and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
Under Vietnam chairmanship sectors such as agriculture, sericulture, floriculture and development of new techniques for enhancing yield have been supported. This also requires a boost to the India-ASEAN science and technology fund which has been created between the two sides. Many of the Southeast Asian countries have been dependent on fisheries and developing aquaculture.
In the areas such as blue economy there is a vast potential and also both sides are keen to explore possibilities. Under the stewardship of Vietnam, it is important that new projects and also ministry level dialogues should be undertaken. India is a developing country and has been taking giant leaps in areas such as strategic technologies, new defence innovations and advanced satellite communications. In the areas of space and cyber the two sides can look forward for developing software and other mobile apps which can reduce dependence on Chinese apps.
India and ASEAN can work jointly in developing the tourism sector particularly identifying the tourist circuits which can boost the economy as well as the hospitality industry. In the post-COVID-19 phase it is important that tourism should be promoted while undertaking safety precautions so that this sector can see a quantum jump. In terms of areas such as climate change and biodiversity, Vietnam can suggest ways to secure carbon sinks and also undertake networking among the institutions which are working in the field of climate change and mitigation.
The India–ASEAN ties need further impetus through better managing of the Green Fund and develop action plan with marine debris and developing biodegradable products. The COVID-19 has opened a new sector of public health and developing generic medicines. While much has work has been done between India and the ASEAN nations but there is need for developing vaccines and creating logistic supply chain so that these vaccines can reach a larger population while transporting them under sub-zero temperatures.
It has been seen that Vietnam has been taking a number of measures related to these aspects even in the very adversarial conditions such as COVID-19 and the agenda and the outcomes have been clearly demarcated in each of the meetings. There is need for addressing these issues during the ASEAN summit meetings with India and also acknowledging the fact that the interest of the two sides have diversified and have huge potential in coming years.
Will the US- China rivalry bring back interventionists policy to Southeast Asia?
George Santayana, a Harvard Professor of Philosophy once said that. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Therefore it is relevant for us to remember anything that happened in the past so we could anticipate and know how to respond to a similar future event that has had happened.
History has told us how significant it was the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union to the world geopolitics. Not only for the US and Soviet Union but also for all countries in the world which then had to choose between the US, the Soviet Union, or the Non-Bloc.
To secure US interest at that time, there has been a lot of effort and interventionist policy to assure that “neutral countries” in many of Latin America Asia and will not fall into communist-led regime will then will join the Soviet bloc.
Southeast Asia is one of the important regions in which the US and Soviet Union try to maintain their influence. Many interventionist policies in the region such as in Vietnam during the Vietnam war and Indonesia during the CIA involvement in a coup attempt against Soekarno was an example of how interventionists policy against the government in Southeast Asia to avoid that they will become communist and lean more towards the Soviet Union.
Fast forward to what happened today, the geopolitical contest between the US and China is getting tenser. As many analysts observe that we might face another cold war when the world number one power is competing with the world number two. And there will surely be a geopolitical implication to the rest of the world. Looking back to what happened during the cold war, what can we learn to anticipate the geopolitical implications of the rivalry between the US and China?.
Many experts have been discussing whether the US-China rivalry will bring us back to some kind of cold war, where countries have to choose between one of them. In Southeast Asia for the US-China rivalry has put Southeast Asian countries in difficult positions.
In the case of the South China Sea, for instance, in the last several years we have seen how the US-China rivalry put Southeast Asian countries in difficult positions. China as a claimant and strongest countries in the dispute was often bully its Southeast Asian claimant states, while on the other hand the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo in many events have tried to persuade ASEAN and offer a backup in dealing and responding to China’s threat in the dispute. Even though Indonesia, Singapore, and other Southeast Asian claimants have already emphasized their neutrality in the dispute and will not choose between the two.
Therefore will the increasing US-China rivalry and competing influence will bring them back to interventionist policy in the region?
Indeed, most western countries including the US have a long history of political intervention in the region. In supporting oppositions, rebel groups that were perceived will foster their interest in the countries as well as to prevent the communist regime during the cold war. Even though in international law it is clear that the non-intervention policy is the basic principle in international law ever since the establishment of the treaty of Westphalia, it is was still happened.
Southeast Asian countries in many events have emphasized that they will not choose between the US or China in the geopolitical contest. Instead, they will enhance peaceful and strategic cooperation with the two that will benefit for the peaceful and prosper in the region. ASEAN’s outlook on Indo-Pacific is an example of how ASEAN tries to keep a balance between the US and China in the region and to keep the region in a neutral position.
While Southeast Asia is getting more important and significant in the world economy and politics, it makes sense if it became a major geopolitical contest arena between the US and China, where both are competing for greater influence in the region. Therefore Southeast Asian countries should learn from the cold war on how interventionists policy might happen.
With the advancement of technology, big data, and the internet, intervention might not the same as what happened thirty or forty years ago during the cold war and Vietnam war. Where there was a weapon supplied to a rebel group or even direct foreign military intervention. Observing what happened with the Cambridge Analytica where big data can be manipulated for an election, will presumably what might happen in this new cold war era. And it will be much more difficult to anticipate.
Another possible form of intervention policy could also drive by economic interest such as “debt-trap diplomacy”. In which China has been practicing to some pacific countries in giving them a loan in a huge number which they can’t repay. And it makes China in higher leverage.
This new form of intervention policy which will bring interventionist policy less obvious more difficult to anticipate. That being said, it is important for Southeast Asian countries to anticipate and strengthen its position in the middle of US-China growing rivalry in the region so there will be less or no form of intervention to any states in the region.
Will Japanese PM Suga visit Vietnam as his first foreign visit?
The new Japanese PM Suga is expected to visit Vietnam given the fact that there is increasing interactions between Japan and Vietnam in the last few years. Also it has been seen that the next ASEAN Summit meeting which is expected to be held by the end of November, and will see the participation of the dialogue partners including Japan. Vietnam has managed to control the spread of COVID 19 even after and spike in Danang, Central province and has been relatively free from the new cases of COVID 19.
Japan is trying to shift production and investment from China is looking to get Into Vietnam and explored possibilities related to shift its production facilities from China to Vietnam. Given the geographic proximity of these two countries, it would be much feasible and better for Japan in the current situation. Japan has proposed to engage with Vietnam through trilateral dialogue mechanisms which would include the Philippines. In another trilateral proposition it is suggested that Japan, Vietnam and the US can create another structure which can complement resilient supply chains and also create a sub structure of the Trans Pacific Partnership which was abandoned by the US, given the requirements for liberalizing markets and adhering to the norms which was perceived as not conducive for the US economic interests in the long run.
With regard to Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership(RCEP) it has been seen that with India excusing itself from signing on the dotted lines in terms of liberalizing its markets and reducing tariffs on more than 80% of the tariff lines, the possibilities with regard to actualization of the RCEP has decreased significantly. It is seen that Vietnam can streamline few of the negotiations, and can entice India to come to the forum with its own blue print. Japanese trade minister as remarked that in the wake of India not joining RCEP programme, it would not be very feasible to enlarge the RCEP market.
Since 2018 that defence ties between the two nations have developed significantly. Vietnam has been trying hard to develop maritime security cooperation with Japan especially after the developments related to China’s aggression in South China Sea and East China Sea have been reported in the last three months. Japan and Vietnam has also agreed on conducting Coast Guard cooperation and developing defence supply network.
In March 2018, during the visit of Japanese Chief of Joint Staff to Vietnam discussions were held with regard to collaboration in areas such as personnel training, developing information technology networks, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, UN peacekeeping operations, military medicine and collaboration between different defence organisations. While military medicine has been an important aspect of the discussions in ASEAN defence ministers meeting plus dialogue which involves dialogue partners also have opened new areas of cooperation. Vietnam which has a growing shipbuilding industry is looking for building military ships and is also accommodating requests from the Japan for liaison visits and training slots in each other’s institutions. Under the defence pact which was signed in 2018 between the two countries, there was agreement that Japan will transfer technology related to shipbuilding and sharing best practices in developing the defence industry of Vietnam.
It has been increasingly seen that the camaraderie which has been developed between Japan and Vietnam during the Abe regime particularly with the respect of investment, high level diplomatic interactions and developing complementarities between the two countries need political support especially when PM Suga has come to power. In fact, both nations have different historical experiences with China and the two civilizations have resisted complete overpowering by the Chinese influence. For Vietnamese leaders Japan acts as an alternative to Beijing rise, and also for Japan a stronger Vietnam provides better stability and security in the maritime waters.
Japan is grappling with the ‘super aged’ population, Vietnam has a relatively young population. Vietnam can emerge as a safe investment destination for Japan which is facing challenges such as shrinking domestic market and relatively reduced labour force. The two countries can benefit from better mutual interactions as investment and technology support from Japan particularly in the field of developing financial acumen, supporting medium and small enterprises, and working on long-term infrastructure projects would benefit Vietnamese economy. Before China became a dominant force in the Southeast Asian politics, it was Japan which because of its aid and assistance programme in Southeast Asia had a wide ranging impact in the developments in this region. The two countries would like to reinvigorate the Japan-Vietnam Extensive Strategic Partnership and ASEAN under Vietnam’s chairmanship would look forward for Japan support in buttressing ASEAN centrality.
Prime Minister Suga is likely to visit Vietnam so as to reinforce the confidence and the support that the administration has reposed in the country. Vietnam is also looking for long-term support projects from Japan so as to reduce its dependence on China on certain sectors. Any shift of Japanese investment from China to Vietnam build complementarities between the two countries. It has been seen that a unified ASEAN would act to China’s disadvantage while other dialogue partners would find it conducive to their larger strategic objectives. Vietnam which is relatively free from COVID-19 can also act as a large scale manufacturing base for Japan in the field of medicine, health care equipment, and even promoting tourism between the two countries. In fact, Japan was one of the very few countries with whom Vietnam has opened air links and it was seen as the commitment to promote better relations between the two countries.
In case Japanese Prime Minister visits Vietnam as its first foreign visit it is likely to address challenges related to the post pandemic order, addressing economic challenges and generating employment while at the same time addressing non-traditional and traditional security issues such as developments in East China Sea and South China Sea. The representations that have been made by European countries -France, Germany and the UK in the UN and also the approach which have been adopted by the US and the other Quad members during the meeting in Tokyo highlights that Vietnam has being successful in bringing to the notice of the international community that China cannot be given a free hand in deciding the law of the sea in these contested regions.
PM Suga’s predecessor Shinzo Abe has been a towering personality and has buttressed greater strategic ties between the two countries, the challenge for Suga would be to help Japanese economy which is decelerating, and therefore it has become pertinent for the two countries to look forward for time bound economic objectives and working out template for CPTPP, RCEP, and other regional economic organizations.
Japan which is a member in the Blue Dot network along with US and Australia, would look forward for some infrastructure projects under this initiative and Vietnam would provide the perfect location to kick start the initiative. Further it has been seen that in defence sector particularly with regard to the visit of the ships and joint exercises which have been conducted by Japan and US as well as the group sail in the South China Sea with like-minded countries has built confidence among the peripheral countries in this region. For Prime Minister Suga it would be important to highlight the programmes and initiatives that Japanese Premier would be undertaking in Vietnam so as to build on resilient supply chains and also explore new emerging markets such as Vietnam. This comprehensive approach under the rubric of strategic partnership and developing economic complementarities would benefit the two countries which are looking forward for the post COVID-19 economic resurgence and supporting each other in terms of regaining the economic growth in the pre COVID-19 times.
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