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China’s Economic Recovery: A Mere Façade

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It would not be too far from the truth to say that China is not all that it says it is. Many of its military and diplomatic actions have gone against norms and messages propagated by its own government. Retracting its own statements and even concealing the truth comes naturally to a government that maintains a monopoly over all information in circulation within the country as well as that which leaves it. Recent statements from the Chinese government have painted a colorful picture for the coming months, with it soon to “regain the economic growth it lost” and maintain its internal strength. How much truth can actually be accorded to such a statement though? Is China’s economy truly in a good shape or is such a statement to be seen as a mere façade, shadowing a highly unstable country?

If recent trends emanating from the country were to be analyzed, one could indeed point to the latter. At the beginning of the year, China’s economic growth had already begun a steady decline, falling to its lowest in 27 years, a mere 6 percent in the 3rd quarter of 2019. Predictions during the time, from both within and outside, projected the growth rate to fall further, with an economist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences predicting a drop below the annualized 5 percent. Additionally, reports questioning the accuracy of the data released by China have also emerged. China’s national accounts are based on data collected by local governments who are rewarded for meeting growth and investment targets. In this regard, it has become apparent through outside observation as well as internal admittance that many of China’s provinces have had an incentive to skew local statistics, some by nearly 20% a few years ago.

Such manipulation of data can have serious ramifications on the calculation of national data, especially since China’s GDP is based on input data rather than real performance. It is also to be noted that in addition to local governments manipulating data, there is a discrepancy between underlying economic activity and GDP figures, which has allowed the government to ignore bad investments and project only the figures it approves off. Based on such an understanding of the Chinese economy, reports from 2019 show that both GDP as well as GDP growth in China are far below official predictions and statements. It must also be understood that the Chinese government itself has always had an incentive to project greater growth during its developing years. Claiming higher growth rates and lying about recessions has allowed China to retain or even increase investment. With that being said, it has become increasingly evident that the statistics and figures released by China cannot be wholly relied upon.

While the above highlights the concealing factor behind China’s economy, it also points to the possibility that China’s economy is currently in a bad state. With the shuttering of businesses across the country, it is evident that the Covid-19 crisis dealt a devastating blow to China’s already floundering economy. Reports published by China’s National Bureau of Statistics in April showed that the country’s GDP had fallen by 6.8 percent, a contraction the likes of which, China has not seen since at least 1992. However, with lockdown measures now ending and policymakers stepping up stimulus to combat the massive economic shock, the country is now set to return to a modest growth rate according to its government. This may be true as China has begun on a path of recovery, however, its economy may have to face another looming crisis soon.

Over the past few months, it has become increasingly evident that not only is foreign investment fleeing the country but there is increasing unrest among local investors as well. China’s economic downturn which began with the trade war and culminated in the COVID-19 economic crisis has frightened investors across China. Since the beginning of the trade war with the US, many international companies have begun shuttering business and departing from the country. The pandemic has seen that number only increase over the past few months with potentially disastrous economic outcomes. Additionally, fears within China have surfaced as well, with many attempting to send their capital abroad. The recent political turmoil now plaguing Hong Kong is also reviving fears over massive capital outflows from the country. China’s new national security bill and the retaliation promised by the US and others has stoked significant concerns. The first instance of this is seen in the immediate aftermath of China’s announcement of the Bill on May 22 when Hong Kong’s benchmark for local stocks plunged by 6.9%. Essentially, with tensions rising, further turmoil and capital flight may soon be in the cards.

Only time will tell whether the government will be able to reduce the possibly disastrous consequences of such capital flight or even reverse the same. In 2015, when similar fears of capital flight occurred, it spurred the country to spend nearly US$1 trillion of its reserves. However, with the current economic downturn in China, it would be highly unlikely that the Chinese government will be able to muster the funds needed in countering such consequences. The Chinese government has seemingly taken cognizance of this fact though and has therefore introduced measures aimed at ensuring Chinese investment and capital remains within China. Not only has China already put a cap on the amount of money allowed to leave the country but also cracked down severely on its underground banking system. Additionally, the government has been attempting to woo the fleeing investors back with promises of economic stability and recovery. China’s current projection of post-pandemic recovery and growth must therefore be viewed through a critical lens, and seen as merely a tool through which it attempts to influence and reassure investors.

On the government’s attempts at ensuring investment though, it has not merely acted in the field of rhetoric and promises though. Since the beginning of last year, the Chinese government has put a cap on the maximum amount allowed for withdrawal from its economy. According to new rules, individuals will only be allowed to withdraw a maximum of the equivalent of around $15,000 and carry transactions up to only $50,000 abroad in a year. Any Chinese citizen found to be withdrawing in excess of that amount will be barred from making any withdrawals for two consecutive years. Additionally, any Chinese citizen leaving China with an excess of RMB 20,000 in cash require a permit issued by the bank that provided the same. In enforcement, the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) has already begun its crack down on capital flight. In November of last year, the agency fined Chinabank Payments $4.2 million for moving money overseas. In the following month, SAFE fined the Bank of China $6,000 for breaking a government rule and allowing a customer to withdraw over $50,000 in cash according to reports. One can be sure that the situation in China is indeed serious, when its government has become overly concerned over a mere $15,000 being withdrawn from the economy.

This concern has also been extended to the new surge in China’s underground banking system. China, in its efforts to counter threats to its economy, has begun a serious crack down on all capital outflows, whether legal or illegal. The Supreme People’s Court recently introduced stiff penalties for any and all illegal currency exchanges. According to new rulings, the government will introduce jail terms of five years or more for those operating ‘underground banks’, which currently facilitate illegal foreign exchange and cross border trading. Through this process, the Chinese government has effectively sought to stop tens of thousands of Chinese from funneling millions out of the country through these services. Since the government has put a cap on the amount of money being withdrawn from the country, people have sought other mechanisms through which they can transfer funds overseas, either for the purpose of investing in property or making other significant foreign exchanges.

The requirement for such mechanisms has motivated the creation of an Informal Value Transfer System (IVTS) known as ‘Underground Banking’. The IVTS involves the transfer of funds to a bank account controlled by a Chinese IVTS provider who then transfers the same into an account of the remitter’s choice. This allows for the transfer of large amounts of funds out of the country without the knowledge of the Chinese government. The stiff penalties now being imposed on such transfers are once again indicative of the governments need to retain capital within its own economy. Any large capital outflow can result in a fall in exchange rates, negative spiral of declining confidence and finally, no buffer for government debt. For a country currently facing a debt to GDP ratio of nearly 300%, capital outflows could result in serious consequences for its economy, especially during a time when mechanisms like the IVTS has seemingly gone into overdrive.

The government is currently doing everything within its power to paint a picture of recovery, provide opportunities for investment and crack down on individuals attempting to evade its rules and directives. While the crackdown on capital outflows and underground banking is evident, there has also been significant actions taken on the digital currency front. Within China, there has been a surge in both the transaction as well as mining of Bitcoins over the past few years. Many experts have stated the need for three factors in ensuring effective cryptocurrency mining, i.e. low-cost electricity, colder weather and reliable internet. The availability of all these factors in China has facilitated massive incursions into the usage of cryptocurrencies, with reports showing between 35-37 variants of the same currently available in the country.

With the property market currently being viewed as inflated and the stock market as a scam, cryptocurrencies provide an alternative to Chinese citizens who wish to make investments that are not riddled with problems or subject to government scrutiny. Many middle- and upper-class Chinese have thus begun making investments and transactions through Bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies. With the government being unable to shutdown Bitcoin accounts or monitor transactions made through the same, this mechanism effectively allows individuals to subvert it. It is estimated that this medium alone has accounted for transactions ranging in billions of dollars over the past few years. With the Renminbi (RMB) essentially losing its transactional value, the number of people now adopting these mechanisms has seen a significant increase, putting the government on alert. However, the only action the government can undertake in this regard, is accelerate the launch of its own sovereign digital currency and hope its citizens will give up on Bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies (a highly unlikely prospect).

It is evident that the government in China may soon have an economic crisis on its hands, one which it may be unable to counter. Extremely high debt to GDP rates and possibly massive capital outflows has put the government in a precarious position. It has therefore sought to curb high debt and also put out reports that its digital currency would be a game changer for Asia, allowing for more RMB demand in the region. Undoubtedly these reports are another one of its propaganda activities, aimed at retaining investment. According to reports, China’s economy will face two major shocks, a pandemic stimulus and a post-pandemic economic fallout.

It must also be noted that China depends on the global economy for its own recovery and if this does not occur soon enough, its economy will have to face serious consequences. The reasons for this are manifold. Most importantly, China, the world’s largest exporter, relies on the United States, Japan, South Korea and others for its economic activity. Exports to the US, are currently facing a shortage of demand as well as disruptions across global supply chains. Additionally, China needs to ensure continued implementation of its Belt and Road Initiative in order to continue a majority of its overseas economic activity. Currently, from Europe to Asia, trade as well as infrastructural projects across the BRI, which accounts for around 17 percent of China’s exports, have been put on hold.

It has therefore become apparent that China’s economic growth is not all that it would seem. While it is the second largest economy in the world and has shown spectacular growth in the past, it would seem like China’s glory days are behind it. Forces that once drove China’s economic growth are now withering. China’s economy can no longer rely on a trade surplus or foreign investment to boost growth and will probably see increased capital outflows in the coming months. Additionally, China is now on the verge of a debt crisis and the massive foreign reserves it has repeatedly used as stimulus in the past have been slowly declining. In this context, it is imperative to question the narratives propagated by the Chinese government. If the Chinese economy is truly on the path of economic recovery, then why has there been an increase in the lack of confidence shared by its own civilians? And if such are the woes facing the country, is the future of its’s economy truly as promising as it’s government would have the world believe? One would think not.

Zeus Hans Mendez is a Research Associate and Centre Coordinator at the Centre for Security Studies (CSS), Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global Univeristy. He is also a Research Assistant at the Centre for Security and Strategy Studies (CeSCube).

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Economy

Sustainable Agriculture in Modern Society

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Now everybody is seeing the world is changing fast in this 21st century and many industries and modern buildings are also developing all over the world. But the land areas for farming are becoming narrower and narrower. Moreover, the global population is increasing rapidly and the earth becomes a crowded planet. But the younger people who are interested in agriculture are becoming less and less. There might be some young people who even think that they get foods from grocery stores because the younger generation are used to buy many kinds of ready-made foods such as fruits and vegetables easily from supermarkets. Recently, in the developed countries, the average age of many farmers is over 50 years old and the numbers of young farmers are decreasing. The shortage of young farmers can become a crisis in the future of the developed world.

In modern days, most young adults cannot see the difficult lives of farmers beyond the curtain. The farmers have to pass their whole life through a tough living in farming and sell their products at very low profit to many profiteering companies because they don’t have much choices. It is a sad story for farmers but truly happening in these modern days.

Today I would like to point out that we should not forget the role of agriculture which is very fundamental and essential for building a nation. Farming is an age-old profession that supported the settlement of human beings for thousands of years to survive on this planet. Agriculture is very important for the development of a nation because it provides the trading and employment, supply the foods and textiles and that can lead to the rise in gross domestic product (GDP) of a nation. Agriculture plays a crucial role in economy of a developing nation where majority of population is in rural areas and agriculture is the main source of job in many underdeveloped areas. Many families in developing countries live depending on farming for their livelihood. So, it can be even said that developing agriculture is an important step to reduce poverty and hunger in many developing countries. Agriculture support nutrients rich foods that are essential requirements for our healthy life because nutrients rich foods provide energy for our body, essential nutrients for our vital organs such as brain and heart etc, and enhance our immune system. So, agriculture is necessary for a flourishing and joyful life of human being.

Especially let’s see my home country, as data from Food and agriculture organization (FAO) of the United Nations, “The agriculture supports 37.8 % of gross domestic product of Myanmar, contributed to 25-30% of total export earnings and employs 70 % of the labour force”. Humans cannot survive without agriculture. When there is no more agriculture, it will end with starvation and collapse in economy. It will cause a serious failure in modern civilization.

Nowadays, modern farming is largely evolved into industrial agriculture where many kinds of chemical fertilizers are being used to induce massive production. Industrial agriculture is beneficial to economic development because it can cause the crops growing faster than in the traditional agriculture. The industrial agriculture can provide more enough foods for growing population in modern civilization. However, it is not sustainable because it cannot protect the benefits of the society and our green planet in the long run. Chemicals used in agriculture are destroying the soil where is left with damaged soil fertility and this area can’t be reused in the future. This is a huge affect to sustainability of our green environment.

Modern agriculture has many issues related to water scarcity, soil erosion, climate changes and etc. To be sustainable in agriculture, we must focus on solutions of these issues. The sustainable agriculture will focus on three bottom lines that is environmental, economical and social.

The sustainable agriculture involves many practices such as using the organic fertilizers in farming, growing drought resistant crops, breeding biodiversity in farms, modified irrigation systems and others. Sustainable agriculture is more suitable to practice for the future of the green earth than industrial agriculture. It is very important to promote awareness of sustainable agriculture and issues related to environmentally toxic practices in agricultures among local farmers. And I believe that it can cause many advantages for economic development if farmers can work systematically with sustainable practices in their farming and the local authority can provide farmers with more technological skills and lending some funding to practice sustainable ways in agriculture. With the willingness to participate for environmental heath at the enough profit for incomes of daily living life, I hope famers will become socially responsible persons.

And another one more point, in this digitalization era, we should certainly apply digital technologies in sustainable agriculture. By developing digital farming, it will help farmers to get easier access to source of many information related to agricultural practices. Government in developing countries should support to develop digital farming as rapidly as possible for the poor farmers to get proper profits and to work in environmentally friendly practices. Since poor countries already have enough labour force, they just need many financial aid and technology supports to grow into sustainable agriculture.

I believe that it is a responsibility for our humans that we should not forget something that had supported our existence on this earth. We should work out for development of traditional agriculture into modern agriculture with the best sustainable ways. As being a part of this society, we must help each other, we must protect the sustainability of this green earth, Biodiversity and this is also beneficial for long-term existence of our human beings on this earth. Let me end this talk by suggesting everyone to promote sustainable agriculture in your surrounding local farming.

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The Blazing Revival of Bitcoin: BITO ETF Debuts as the Second-Highest Traded Fund

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It seems like bitcoin is as resilient as a relentless pandemic: persistent and refusing to stay down. Not long ago, the crypto-giant lost more than half of its valuation in the aftermath of a brutal crackdown by China. Coupled with pessimism reflected by influencers like Elon Musk, the bitcoin plummeted from the all-time high valuation of $64,888.99 to flirt around the $30,000 mark in mere weeks. However, over the course of the last four months, the behemoth of the crypto-market gradually climbed to reclaim its supremacy. Today, weaving through national acceptance to market recognition, bitcoin could be the gateway to normalizing the elusive crypto-world in the traditional global markets: particularly the United States.

The recent bullish development is the launch of the ProShares Bitcoin Strategy ETF – the first Bitcoin-linked exchange-traded fund – on the New York Stock Exchange. Trading under the ticker BITO, the Bitcoin ETF welcomed a robust trading day: rising 4.9% to $41.94. According to the data compiled by Bloomberg, BITO’s debut marked it as the second-highest traded fund, behind BlackRock’s Carbon fund, for the first day of trading. With a turnover of almost $1 billion, the listing of BITO highlighted the demand for reliable investment in bitcoin in the US market. According to estimates on Tuesday, More than 24 million shares changed hands while BITO was one of the most-bought assets on Fidelity’s platform with more than 8,800 buy orders.

The bitcoin continued to rally, cruising over the lucrative launch of BITO. The digital currency rose to $64,309.33 on Tuesday: less than 1% below the all-time high valuation. In hindsight, the recovery seems commendable. The growing acceptance, albeit, has far more consequential attributes. The cardinal benefit is apparent: evidence of gradual acceptance by regulators. “The launch of ProShares’ bitcoin ETF on the NYSE provides the validation that some investors need to consider adding BTC to their portfolio,” stated Hong Fang, CEO of Okcoin. In simpler terms, not only would the listing allow relief to the crypto loyalists (solidifying their belief in the currency), but it would also embolden investors on the sidelines who have long been deterred by regulatory uncertainty. Thus, bringing larger, more rooted institutional investors into the crypto market: along with a surge of capital.

However, the surging acceptance may be diluting the rudimentary phenomenon of bitcoin. While retail investors would continue to participate in the notorious game of speculation via trading bitcoin, the opportunity to gain indirect exposure to bitcoin could divert the risk-averse investors. It means many loyalists could retract and direct towards BITO and other imminent bitcoin-linked ETFs instead of setting up a digital custodianship. Ultimately, it boils down to Bitcoin ETFs being managed by third parties instead of the investor: relenting control to a centralized figure. Moreover, with growing scrutiny under the eye of SECP, the steps vaguely intimate a transition to harness the market instead of liberalizing it: quiet oxymoronic to the entire decentralized model of cryptocurrencies.

Nonetheless, the listing of BITO is an optimistic development that would draw skeptics to at least observe the rampant popularity of the asset class. While the options on BITO are expected to begin trading on the NYSE Arca Options and NYSE American Options exchanges on Wednesday, other futures-based Bitcoin ETFs are on the cards. The surging popularity (and reluctant acceptance) amid tightening regulation could prove a turn of an era for the US capital markets. However, as some critics have cited, BITO is not a spot-based ETF and is instead linked to futures contracts. Thus, the restrain is still present as the regulators do not want a repeat of the financial crisis. Nevertheless, bitcoin has proved its deterrence in the face of skepticism. And if the BITO launch is to be marveled at, then the regulations are bound to adapt to the revolution that is unraveling in the modern financial reality.

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Is Myanmar an ethical minefield for multinational corporations?

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Business at a crossroads

Political reforms in Myanmar started in November 2010 followed by the release of the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and ended by the coup d’état in February 2021. Business empire run by the military generals thanks to the fruitful benefits of democratic transition during the last decade will come to an end with the return of trade and diplomatic sanctions from the western countries – United States (US) and members of European Union (EU).  US and EU align with other major international partners quickly responded and imposed sanctions over the military’s takeover and subsequent repression in Myanmar. These measures targeted not only the conglomerates of the military generals  but also the individuals who have been appointed in the authority positions and supporting the military regime.

However, the generals and their cronies own the majority of economic power both in strategic sectors ranging from telecommunication to oil & gas and in non-strategic commodity sectors such as food and beverages, construction materials, and the list goes on. It is a tall order for the investors to do business by avoiding this lucrative network of the military across the country. After the coup, it raises the most puzzling issue to investors and corporate giants in this natural resource-rich country, “Should I stay or Should I go?”

Crimes against humanity

For most of the people in the country, war crimes and atrocities committed by the military are nothing new. For instances, in 1988, student activists led a political movement and tried to bring an end to the military regime of the general Ne Win. This movement sparked a fire and grew into a nationwide uprising in a very short period but the military used lethal force and slaughtered thousands of civilian protestors including medical doctors, religious figures, student leaders, etc. A few months later, the public had no better options than being silenced under barbaric torture and lawless killings of the regime.

In 2007, there was another major protest called ‘Saffron Uprising’ against the military regime led by the Buddhist monks. It was actually the biggest pro-democracy movement since 1988 and the atmosphere of the demonstration was rather peaceful and non-violent before the military opened live ammunitions towards the crowd full of monks. Everything was in chaos for a couple of months but it ended as usual.

In 2017, the entire world witnessed one of the most tragic events in Myanmar – Again!. The reports published by the UN stated that hundreds of civilians were killed, dozens of villages were burnt down, and over 700,000 people including the majority of Rohingya were displaced to neighboring countries because of the atrocities committed by the military in the western border of the country. After four years passed, the repatriation process and the safety return of these refugees to their places of origin are yet unknown. Most importantly, there is no legal punishment for those who committed and there is no transitional justice for those who suffered in the aforementioned examples of brutalities.

The vicious circle repeated in 2021. With the economy in free fall and the deadliest virus at doorsteps, the people are still unbowed by the oppression of the junta and continue demanding the restoration of democracy and justice. To date, Assistant Association for Political Prisoner (AAPP) reported that due to practicing the rights to expression, 1178 civilians were killed and 7355 were arrested, charged or sentenced by the military junta. Unfortunately, the numbers are still increasing.

Call for economic disengagement

In 2019, the economic interests of the military were disclosed by the report of UN Fact-Finding Mission in which Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holding Limited (MEHL) were described as the prominent entities controlled by the military profitable through the almost-monopoly market in real estate, insurance, health care, manufacturing, extractive industry and telecommunication. It also mentioned the list of foreign businesses in partnership with the military-linked activities which includes Adani (India), Kirin Holdings (Japan), Posco Steel (South Korea), Infosys (India) and Universal Apparel (Hong Kong).

Moreover, Justice for Myanmar, a non-profit watchdog organization, revealed the specific facts and figures on how the billions of revenues has been pouring into the pockets of the high-ranked officers in the military in 2021. Myanmar Oil & Gas Enterprise (MOGE), an another military-controlled authority body, is the key player handling the financial transactions, profit sharing, and contractual agreements with the international counterparts including Total (France), Chevron (US), PTTEP (Thailand), Petronas (Malaysia), and Posco (South Korea) in natural gas projects. It is also estimated that the military will enjoy 1.5 billion USD from these energy giants in 2022.

Additionally, data shows that the corporate businesses currently operating in Myanmar has been enriching the conglomerates of the generals and their cronies as a proof to the ongoing debate among the public and scholars, “Do sanctions actually work?” Some critics stressed that sanctions alone might be difficult to pressure the junta without any collaborative actions from Moscow and Beijing, the longstanding allies of the military. Recent bilateral visits and arm deals between Nay Pyi Taw and Moscow dimmed the hope of the people in Myanmar. It is now crystal clear that the Burmese military never had an intention to use the money from multinational corporations for benefits of its citizens, but instead for buying weapons, building up military academies, and sending scholars to Russia to learn about military technology. In March 2021, the International Fact Finding Mission to Myanmar reiterated its recommendation for the complete economic disengagement as a response to the coup, “No business enterprise active in Myanmar or trading with or investing in businesses in Myanmar should enter into an economic or financial relationship with the security forces of Myanmar, in particular the Tatmadaw [the military], or any enterprise owned or controlled by them or their individual members…”

Blood money and ethical dilemma

In the previous military regime until 2009, the US, UK and other democratic champion countries imposed strict economic and diplomatic sanctions on Myanmar while maintaining ‘carrot and stick’ approach against the geopolitical dominance of China. Even so, energy giants such as Total (France) and Chevron (US), and other ‘low-profile’ companies from ASEAN succeeded in running their operations in Myanmar, let alone the nakedly abuses of its natural resources by China. Doing business in this country at the time of injustice is an ethical question to corporate businesses but most of them seems to prefer maximizing the wealth of their shareholders to the freedom of its bottom millions in poverty.

But there are also companies not hesitating to do something right by showing their willingness not to be a part of human right violations of the regime. For example, Australian mining company, Woodside, decided not to proceed further operations, and ‘get off the fence’ on Myanmar by mentioning that the possibility of complete economical disengagement has been under review. A breaking news in July, 2021  that surprised everyone was the exit of Telenor Myanmar – one of four current telecom operators in the country. The CEO of the Norwegian company announced that the business had been sold to M1 Group, a Lebanese investment firm, due to the declining sales and ongoing political situations compromising its basic principles of human rights and workplace safety.

In fact, cutting off the economic ties with the junta and introducing a unified, complete economic disengagement become a matter of necessity to end the consistent suffering of the people of Myanmar. Otherwise, no one can blame the people for presuming that international community is just taking a moral high ground without any genuine desire to support the fight for freedom and pro-democracy movement.

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