Although India and China are jointly working on modalities to end tensions arising out of the four-month-long face-off between the Indian Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in eastern Ladakh, the fact remains that the relations between the two countries were never based on sufficient trust and mutual understanding necessary for a stable bilateral relationship.
It is worth remembering that following the 74-day Doklam standoff between the Indian and Chinese militaries, the two countries attempted to reset their relations, starting from an informal meeting between their leaders in Wuhan, China, in April 2018 and followed by meetings on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Qingdao in June and the BRICS summit in July 2018.
The key outcomes of the meetings were discussions pertaining to partnership in economic projects and capacity-building in Afghanistan and setting up a hotline between their military headquarters to strengthen communication and build trust and mutual understanding to avoid any future Doklam-like situations.
While these discussions were yet to see results on the ground, Beijing’s move to block New Delhi’s attempts at seeking United Nations Security Council sanctions against Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) founder Masood Azhar, the alleged mastermind of attacks on India’s Uri military base in 2016, and its announced sale of 48 high-end drones to Pakistan close on the heels of India’s agreement with Russia to procure the S-400 missile system, pointed to the existing volatility in relations between India and China.
While unresolved territorial claims since India’s independence shaped bilateral perceptions on peace, security and development, the more recent Doklam standoff in the high Himalayas raised a geopolitical question as to how both could reconcile their positions in ‘overlapping peripheries’. China’s heavy infrastructure building exercises in its neighborhood such as ports, railways, airports and interconnecting roads under the BRI corroborated the perception that the former was incessantly engaged in multiplying its influence in what the latter considers its strategic periphery. India’s commitment to a strategic partnership with the US on the one hand and attempts at forging bilateral ties with China on the other also did not convince China that the strategic partnership between India and the US was not directed at undercutting Beijing’s geopolitical influence.
The border clashes between India and China can no more be viewed merely as the Chinese attempts at redrawing the border between the two rather it is integral to China’s larger claims over the Himalayan landscape.
Until the Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) were launched by China, use of Chinese card by India’s neighbors did not lead to Chinese interference in determining India’s relations with its neighbors nor did it give rise to India-China standoff threatening India’s predominance in the South Asian region. China maintained distance from the Indo-Pak dispute over the Kashmir issue by considering it as a bilateral problem as was evidenced from its neutrality during the Kargil War between India and Pakistan in 1999.
The Chinese footprint in the region became more pronounced with the launching of the BRI and Maritime Silk Route initiatives. Chinese economic engagements with the South Asian countries under these initiatives were viewed with suspicion in New Delhi. Indian strategic and foreign policy experts perceived a threat of ‘encirclement’ (Chinese strategy of encirclement has been conceptualized as ‘String of Pearls’ strategy by India’s strategic and defence experts) in the growing Chinese engagement with the South Asian region although its stated objective was enhancing connectivity. There is no denying the fact that roads, railways, bridges, and ports can be used both for civil and military purposes.
Nepal’s strategic ties with China have been affirmed by frequent bilateral visits between the countries to discuss the construction of trans-Himalayan multidimensional connectivity and Nepal’s unflinching commitment to the one-China policy, which underlined that the Himalayan country would never allow any forces to make use of its soil for anti-China activities. A new great-game scenario characterizing geopolitical struggle for influence between India and China is more of a fact with reference to Nepal than Bhutan, which is not a part of the BRI. Close India-Bhutan strategic ties were also noticed in the small Himalayan country’s refusal to the Chinese offer of a much larger portion of disputed territory in the north where Bhutan has higher economic stakes, in exchange for the relatively small plateau with limited domestic interests – Doklam – underlining the Bhutanese sensitivities to India’s security stake in the plateau. Indian concerns as regards Chinese influence have prevented Bhutan from allowing China a diplomatic presence. However, India cannot take Bhutanese support for granted.
Former prime minister Jigme Thinley’s suspicious move to court China and discuss with his Chinese counterpart issues allegedly pertaining to formal diplomatic presence and a land-swapping deal involving the strategically located areas in the tri-junction of India-Bhutan and China led India to withdraw subsidies on kerosene and cooking gas as a measure to pile up pressure on Bhutan to force it to change its stance. This was subsequently withdrawn, and the succeeding Prime Minister Tobgay Tshering maintained close relations with the Indian leadership by putting a pause on diplomatic overtures to Beijing. There are instances when Bhutan due to its geographical location between India and China – two large countries required stressing its independence despite the historical bonding with India. Bhutan’s desire for independence was palpable not only when the then Bhutanese king declined to provide base to Indian troops during the Sino-India war in 1962, it was felt in certain quarters within Bhutan that India continued to discourage the small South Asian country from opening diplomatic relations with other countries especially China. Geopolitics of the Himalayan country suggests that while India would try to preserve its influence and prevent it from drifting towards China as happened during Thinley’s regime, China would try to swing the change away from India’s orbit. Meanwhile, Bhutan would make adept attempts at maintaining a fine balance to preserve its independence in the midst of two big powers. For New Delhi, the task would be to create enough trust and mutual stakes so that the country would not be swayed by Chinese overtures.
The Himalayan countries are not only small in size and population, but they have also had continuously looked for capital, investment and a reliable security provider. India and China have looked upon these states primarily from a strategic perspective given their prized strategic location in the Himalayas where both shared land frontiers and competed for influence through aid, investment and coercive measures as well.
Nepal clearly demonstrated its desire to overcome limitations imposed by its India-locked geography and diversify its relations with many significant state actors outside the South Asian region. The Nepal-China Trans-Himalayan Multidimensional Connectivity Network, including the Nepal-China cross-border railway, has been named in a list of projects under the BRI. China kept pouring massive economic capital into Tibet specifically targeting infrastructure projects that could facilitate connectivity, infrastructure and energy projects in Nepal. Nepal’s commitment to the Chinese projects and its one-China policy can be inferred from the unequivocal support that the Nepalese Consulate in Lhasa lends to Beijing’s claims to both Tibet and Taiwan.
During a visit to Beijing by Nepalese Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli in June 2018, the two sides sealed eight deals worth US$2.4 billion pertaining to connectivity, infrastructure and energy projects. The agreements included the targets to develop hydropower projects, cement plants and agri-food parks. The Chinese foray into Nepal looked promising and became more entrenched, and Beijing turned out be Kathmandu’s largest source of foreign direct investment and its second-largest trading partner by the end of 2019. India, on the other hand, keep expressing the strategic concerns that Nepal must be cautious against opaque loans and financing conditions offered by China that were directed at spawning debt traps and seizing control of strategic assets.
The US has been witnessed making concerted efforts at cultivating the Himalayan countries Nepal and Bhutan in a bid to strengthen its Indo-Pacific strategy and build a resolute response to China’s BRI as well as mitigate strategic concerns emanating from Beijing’s connectivity projects. Nepal’s inclusion in the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy was claimed by the US after Nepalese Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met during the former’s visit to Washington in December 2018. Later, two US representatives visited Nepal in order to discuss and pitch the strategy with the Himalayan state. However, the report of Nepal’s inclusion drove China to enlist the Himalayan country’s continued support for its BRI and the US sought clarifications from Nepal as to its stance on Indo-Pacific policy.
Meanwhile, India is focusing on ways and means to keep the Himalayan countries within its sphere of influence and seems poised to throw its weight behind the American Indo-Pacific strategies to counter Chinese influence, considering the fact that New Delhi has not been able to match Beijing’s sway through connectivity and infrastructure.
India has been supplying significant aid and soft loans to Nepal with development as a priority as compared with China which has targeted at hard infrastructure and connectivity. Poor infrastructure on the Indian side has not only prevented both countries from strengthening bilateral connectivity, the Himalayan country has been unable to harness the full potential of transit facilities to third countries through India. India has failed to float a coherent strategy that could interlink infrastructure-building and regional connectivity with its emphasis on development. Its aid and investment in the neighborhood gravitate more toward soft areas such as housing and shelter, water and sanitation, livelihood, education, research and training, health care, industrial development, arts, culture and sports, with a thrust on “grassroots-level development” without similar emphasis on infrastructure-building and connectivity.
A Carnegie India research paper notes: “New Delhi has been slow in identifying, initiating, and implementing a coherent approach to connectivity in the South Asia and Indian Ocean region. Although India has identified countries such as Japan as key partners in formulating a response, there has been little progress on a plan of action.” However, this lethargic response from India is bound to change as China and the US invigorate their efforts to enhance strategic influence under the BRI and the Indo-Pacific strategy respectively.
The spread of the pandemic Covid-19 across the globe from Chinese soil and China’s surreptitious role in managing the public reporting of the pandemic ranging from its outbreak to total cases affected by and deaths resulted from is poised to place India in a favorable place in its neighborhood compared to China. The pandemic has not only strengthened the American resolve to tighten its strategic partnership with India, the latter, in this context, is poised to throw its weight behind the US and its allies strengthening the Indo-Pacific strategy spanning the Himalayan landscape as well to roll back Chinese influence in the region. However, China’s entrenchment in the region through enhanced connectivity, infrastructure-building and loans would pose difficult challenges for the Indo-Pacific allies.
South Korea’s Potential for Global Influence is Weakened by its Mistreatment of Women
In recent years, the Republic of Korea has become a pop culture juggernaut.
Eight years after “Gangnam Style” went global, K-Pop still reigns supreme with boy band BTS topping charts and issuing IPOs. Bong Joon-ho’s film “Parasite” swept last year’s Oscars, kimchi now has UNESCO cultural heritage status, while Samsung smartphones are used all over the world, second only to the mighty Apple.
The global appeal of the Korean Wave, known as “Hallyu,” recently attracted the attention of a report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which argued that this rising soft power could in turn boost South Korea’s global influence and drive diplomatic leadership on a broad range of transnational issues, from climate change to public health to democracy promotion.
This all sounds great, but there remains a nagging problem. Despite its flourishing culture, there have also been a string of scandals highlighting the plight of women in the country, who facing everything from inequality to workplace discrimination and rampant sexual harassment.
By any measure, the problem is significant and costly to the country’s interests. According to a 2019 report by the World Economic Forum, South Korea ranks 124 out of 149 countries in the world in terms of economic opportunity for women, while another report cites the highest gender pay gap among OECD nations at 35%. This low level of female participation in the economy is not only a drag on future GDP growth, but also coincides with a parallel mental health crisis: suicides among Korean women in their 20s have jumped by more than 40 percent in the last year, at the same time that male deaths are in decline.
Mistreatment of women in Korea may be a feature, not a bug, of the system. A recent string of sexual abuse scandals has reached the highest levels of the country’s political elites.
This past July, the country was shocked to wake up to the news that the popular Mayor of Seoul Park Won-soon had committed suicide when accusations of sexual assault against his secretary were made public. Mayor Park had built his image as stalwart champion of women’s rights, and yet, the secretary, who has been threatened and blamed following the suicide, says that she “felt defenseless and weak before the immense power” of the Mayor.
Months later, we are discovering the very people meant to protect the victims instead act to protect the alleged perpetrators. Congresswoman Nam In-soon, one of South Korea’s highest profile women’s rights activists, is being called on to resign after it was revealed that she leaked news of the sexual harassment investigation into Mayor Park. Another member of congress, Yoon Mee-hyang, was forced out of the ruling Democratic Party after facing criminal charges of embezzlement from the “comfort women” charity she used to direct, which raised money for survivors of World War II military brothels.
Before Mayor Park’s suicide and the comfort women scandal, there were many others. Last year, South Chungcheong Province Governor Ahn Hee-jung was convicted on nine counts of rape and sentenced to three and half years in prison. Mayor of Busan Oh Keo-Don was forced to resign following the assault accusation. Ahn Tae-geun, a former senior prosecutor whose case had become symbolic for the #MeToo movement, had his conviction overturned earlier this year.
These patterns stand in stark contrast to the image the government seeks to project.
In public speeches, President Moon Jae-in frequently advocates in defense of women’s rights in speeches and interviews. Speaking at the last UN General Assembly, he declared a commitment to inclusiveness and reducing inequalities. The ruling DPK has long associated itself with rights activists, and has made gestures toward combating misconduct and mistreatment of women – but critics say they aren’t doing enough. A headline on CNN last summer went so far as to call out the hypocrisy: “South Korea’s President says he’s a feminist. Three of his allies have been accused of sex crimes.”
Despite numerous protest movements and well supported marches, Korea has not yet experienced a breakthrough #MeToo moment. According to media testimonials, many women continue to face significant obstacles to advance in their careers. Even after 70,000 women marched last year to protest the prolific abuse of spy cams set up in bathrooms and changing rooms, patriarchal attitudes continue. This month, guidelines published on an official government website advising pregnant women to cook, clean, and to lose weight for their husbands after childbirth caused a social media uproar.
This is a deeply concerning problem. As highlighted by the Carnegie report, Korea’s role as a “middle power” in a such a volatile region would be highly welcome, and not just on things like climate and coronavirus vaccine distribution, but also their crucial role in containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and holding firm in the shadow of China’s expanding authoritarian reach.
Some Korean groups have advocated internationally against gender-based violence, which is undoubtedly a very worthy cause. But until the Moon government can get serious about tackling these inequalities and abuses at home, its efforts to project influence abroad will fail to meet potential.
Considering the Continental Dimension of the Indo-Pacific: The Mongolian Precedent
The Indo-Pacific is now the site of global great-power competition and contestation. And, as a reflection of its growing importance in international discourse, a number of extra-regional actors adopted the concept last year. Among those adoptees, Mongolia set a unique precedent for the regional security discourse to actively consider the continental dimension of the Indo-Pacific by highlighting geopolitical convergences with other regional actors, and the strategic threat posed by Beijing’s “Silk Road Economic Belt”.
Mongolia in the Indo-Pacific
Actors who have adopted the Indo-Pacific concept vaguely define it as beginning in the Arabian Sea and ending in the Western Pacific Ocean. Much of the discourse is also driven by the US-China strategic competition in Southeast Asia, and the US’ attempt to counter Chinese influence in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, along with its regional partners and allies, e.g the India-Australia-Japan-US ‘Quad’. As a result, actors in the Indo-Pacific have generally focused on the development of maritime military and economic measures.
In early October, during a Japan-Mongolia Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, both sides agreed to continue consolidating their efforts in pursuing a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, in line with the promises of the 2018 Japan-Mongolia Summit.
Mongolia’s participation as a continental, extra-regional actor with limited maritime significance, shifts the geopolitical locus of the theatre, ever so slightly, north of Southeast Asia (the current focus). Ulaanbaatar’s adoption of the geostrategic theatre appears to be driven by continued Chinese antagonism, and a result of its “third neighbour” policy.
China continues to threaten Mongolia’s territorial sovereignty by claiming Inner Mongolia,clamp down on its cultural identity, and impose costs on Mongolia’s export-oriented economy. The last issue is critical, since Mongolia’s largest export partner, approximately92.78 percent of overall exports, is China. Enclosed between two large countries, Russia and China, Mongolia has traditionally maintained a “third neighbour” policy approach: building political and economic relationships with actors other than the aforementioned.
Given the continued animosity with Beijing, Ulaanbaatar has increasingly emphasised these other relations over the years. e.g. with the UK, the US, Japan, etc. In 2019 President Khaltmaagiin Battulga visited New Delhi to develop deeper ties with another “third neighbour” state. Mongolia also shares the “like-minded” characteristics – a liberal democracy – to maintain and preserve a “free, fair, open and rules-based” order in the US-Japan Indo-Pacific strategy.
And so, actors looking to potentially partner with Mongolia or others with similar economic and connectivity deficits in Central and West Asia, will have to include, within their Indo-Pacific approaches, measures that involve non-littoral actors.
The BRI and Continental Asia
China’s rise as an expansionist Asian military and global economic power is at the core of the Indo-Pacific security discourse. Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea (SCS), China’s growing naval power, and the colossal Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) form the major strategic threats to regional multilateralism and collective security.
The most long standing threat among them, the BRI, is divided into the transcontinental “silk route” and the maritime “silk road”. However, much of the Indo-Pacific discourse is dominated by the silk road, especially those projects directed towards the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). BRI projects in the IOR are crucial to Beijing’s expanding influence in South Asia and control on international energy and trade supply routes. Also hidden among the maritime/trans-continental connectivity and infrastructure projects, is China’s growing security presence in the region.
However, Mongolia’s entry directs attention to a dimension unique to the current maritime Indo-Pacific discourse –the silk route, that cuts across Central Asia, towards Europe and South Asia, with a similar number of projects in Southeast Asia.
Among the six ‘silk route’ projects, Mongolia’s concern is the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor (CMREC) that cuts through Eastern Mongolia, beginning in Ulanqab (or “Jining”) in Inner Mongolia, and ending at Ulan-Ude, in BurYatia, Russia. Similar projects include the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor (CCWAEC).
Connecting the continental to the maritime is the main goal of the BRI. In fact, the project was first announced during a Chinese state visit to Central Asia in 2013. President Xi Jinping proposed the “Silk Road Economic Belt” with a vision to connect the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea. Beijing’s vision of comprehensive global economic and military power requires a built path to various regions of the world, i.e infrastructure to facilitate dual-use logistics. Given the recent spate of BRI loans going bad, this vision continues to remain unfulfilled.
The continental dimension, Asia, is what makes the Indo-Pacific a theatre of global concern. Trans-continental connectivity, between and within Europe and Asia, narrows the distance between actors, and the shared interest in maintaining regional multilateralism and collective security ensures their continued participation in the Indo-Pacific. As more actors like Mongolia adopt the Indo-Pacific concept, connecting the continental to the maritime and vice versa, sans BRI, will become a strategic concern.
Mongolia’s entry into the theatre offers a unique precedent for those involved in maintaining and preserving a “free, fair, open and rules-based” Indo-Pacific to evaluate and initiate relationships between non-littoral actors and the maritime dimension.
The On-Ground Reality
However, there are a number of obstacles to actively consider continental Asia in the Indo-Pacific discourse. The two most important are geography and geopolitics.
Mongolia for example, is completely enclosed by two actors – Russia and China – who are averse and hostile to the idea of the Indo-Pacific. And, any “counter-BRI” connectivity project envisioned by other regional actors will have to go through their territories. The case of Afghanistan is similar. Divergences in geopolitical interests and ties with actors in the Arabian Sea, particularly with regard to Iran and Pakistan, stays the idea of trans-regional connectivity between Kabul and the world.
The geopolitical obstacle here is the dependent economic relationships that non-littorals in Asia have with Beijing. Mongolia is just one among many Central and West Asian states that have local economies indelibly tied to the political whims of Beijing. During the coronavirus pandemic, a period that saw considerable anti-China sentiment in the international community, Beijing has managed to maintain a level of trust and shared security with many Indo-Pacific states. National vaccination plans are based on the delivery of Chinese vaccines.
There is another reason why the security discourse on the Indo-Pacific is focused on maritime measures – maintaining and preserving the integrity of international Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) and the respect for territorial sovereignty. In that endeavour, multilateral platforms like the Quad allows members to share historic and strategic advantages in the IOR and Pacific Ocean to counter Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific’s various sub-regions. On land however, in Central and South Asia, for example the clash in the Galwan river valley last year, Chinese incursions provoke bilateral responses giving it leeway to act with relative impunity.
While there are a number of real obstacles to consider the continental dimension of the Indo-Pacific, Mongolia sets a geopolitical precedent for a comprehensive geographic definition, one that includes both the maritime and continental. From this year on, states participating in the Indo-Pacific now have a reason to approach and include non-littoral actors in the Indo-Pacific.
This precedent also highlights the need to include the continental ‘silk route’ in the Indo-Pacific security discourse. Devising such a definition will be a similar exercise as to the amalgamation of the terms “Indo-Pacific” and “Asia-Pacific” to form the “Indo-Asia-Pacific”; now used at times in geostrategic discourse.
Time to play the Taiwan card
At a time when the dragon is breathing fire, India must explore alternative tactics, perhaps establishment of formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan can be a landmark step
The standoff on the Ladakh border between the Indian Army and the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) continues amid failing talks and casus belli measures being unleashed by the Chinese regime. While the union government and the armed forces make it clear that they will do whatever it takes to protect India’s sovereignty and integrity, precious little has been done on the foreign policy front. While India and its democratic allies which comprise the Quad security grouping declare their intent to form the ‘Asian NATO’, the Quad continues to suffer from indecisiveness which was pretty much evident when the Quad did not even issue a joint statement to condemn China at the foreign ministers meeting held last year, only America publicly called out China.
In such a situation, it is imperative that India explore alternate diplomatic and militaristic routes to tame the dragon.
Establishing formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan after recognizing should be vigorously pursuing by South Block. Indo-Taiwan ties date back to the early 1950s when Chiang Kai Shek, the ex Chinese president and former head of state fled to the island of Formosa following the victory of Mao Zedong in the long drawn out Chinese civil war called on Nehru to establish and further ties with Formosa, however Nehru believing that Chiang was nothing but a “peanut” decided to ignore his call, choosing instead to concentrate on building ties with People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Seven decades on, plethora of changes has taken place on the foreign affairs front, while both China and India have developed considerably both militarily and economically the dragon has surpassed elephant to become an economic powerhouse in its own might. It has now embraced aggressiveness to enforce its 5th century vision of the ‘Middle Kingdom’. In such a situation providing legitimacy to the existence of Taiwan is a necessary first step.
Paradigm shift in policy
Establishing formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan will bring about a paradigm shift vis-à-vis India’s foreign policy. It will enforce the idea that liberal democracy is the last word in the battle of ideologies as Francis Fukuyama had visualized in his landmark book ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ and that there is no alternative to human rights and liberties, not even the Chinese model of ‘authoritarian development’. It will be the boldest step that any global leader has taken, not even the mighty US which has no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan has taken this step.
Recognizing Taiwan will entail a lot of benefits for the mandarins of India’s foreign policy regime- firstly, Taiwan is a robust democracy with a booming economy, it will prove to be an alternative to China albeit in a relatively less proportion, secondly, India can bolster the legitimacy as the leader of the democratic world at a time when the democratic institutions in the US-often regarded as the cradle of democracy has been undermined.
Thirdly, India can get the support of another powerful ally in its attempt to carve out a new supply chain alliance which India-Japan-Australia formalized recently. Fourthly, recognizing Taiwan will make it clear to China that India means some serious business and if the need arises then India will not back down from sending dedicated naval and air assets in the disputed South China Sea region to enforce freedom of navigation principle in the resource rich region. Lastly, the Quad security grouping will be institutionalized which in the near future can even be extended to include new members, it will be the first time that India will be a part of any dedicated military and economic alliance which will deter the aggression of the Chinese war machine in the strategic Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific Region.
However the recognition may invite severe ramifications for India. China will be infuriated and can choose to ratchet up tensions with India. India must be extremely careful while dealing with China as China is our second largest bilateral trade partner and a key export partner of India with regard to raw materials and goods. According to a FICCI report, India imports more than 40% of several important goods like the API (Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients), television, chemicals, chips, textiles and many more.
The dragon will as a possible retaliatory measure can activate its propaganda machinery to wage psychological warfare with India. It can also activate its terror financing networks which for years remained a chronic internal security for India in the northeast of the country. China will also collaborate with its ‘iron brother’ Pakistan to try and deter India by intensifying terrorism in the Kashmir valley and elsewhere. Further, China can use its potent disinformation empire to try and peddle fake news about the credibility of India’s indigenous vaccines at a time when the light at the end of the tunnel of a pandemic stricken world has appeared.
Keeping all the dangers in mind, the Modi government must keep national interests in mind. Despite all the risks, it must work with all the like- minded countries to take own the mighty dragon responsible for unleashing a deadly virus which has wrecked havoc on humanity. For the sake of the free world, India must take the hard step which will reinforce India’s position in cementing its place as the leader of the free world.
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