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The Role of Malaysia in ASEAN

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The three important objectives of ASEAN, a. collaboration and cooperation; b. trade and economic growth; and c. peace and stability, have reflected in various initiatives and achievements by Malaysia. 

Regional Governance

Throughout history, regional governance was based on nation-states working together for their mutual security and prosperity. Geographical proximity plays a key factoring such governance.

Although non-interference, respect for territorial integrity and Westphalian understandings of sovereignty have acted as regulatory norms for ASEAN members, this has not prevented the countries from conforming the founding principles of peace and security. The member-States have successfully promoted the interests of one another, by keeping conflicts amongst themselves as well as with other countries, aside. The organization has been able to maintain peace and stability within the region, without the eruption of war among its member-states. Moreover, it has provided a unique framework for regional community-building.

Malaysia even plays a crucial role in the Southeast Asia region and has taken several governance initiatives to maintain peace in the region. Most importantly, Malaysia initiated the idea of ZOPFAN (Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality) in the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (Kuala Lumpur, 1971). Under the ZOPFAN, the member-states agreed to exclude foreign powers, especially the United States, U.S.S.R and People’s Republic of China from interfering with ASEAN countries and prevent them from using the region as a theatre for conflict.

Additionally, the Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Seri Dr Salleh Said Keruak from Malaysia also said, “We are united in ASEAN to solving regional issues such as overlapping territorial claims, the threat of terrorism, cross-border crimes and others.”

Regional Cooperation

Regional cooperation and integration (RCI) is a process by which national economies become more interconnected regionally. It is an effective mechanism for member state countries, mostly from a specific geographical region, to place their common interests in concurrence with their national interests and facilitate mutual cooperation and dialogue.

In furtherance of promoting such cooperation, Malaysia invoked the idea of a regional free trade zone in 1990, the East Asia Economic Group (EAEG). The objectives of EAEG were to boost economic cooperation, to promote and defend free trade, accelerate economic growth, introduce open regionalisms, and contribute to multilateral trading systems. This was a debatable yet innovative move to protect the regional interests and enhance the trade between the countries.

When Malaysia became the Chairman in 2015, it declared “Our People, Our Community, Our Vision” as the theme, which further points out the active participation of Malaysia to bring the people of the community, rather than the country, closer to each other, economically as well as culturally.

Research shows that Malaysia also played a key role in progressively advancing the establishment of the ASEAN Charter, which is a document that confers the legal personality of ASEAN. With the entry into force of the ASEAN Charter, ASEAN will henceforth operate under a new legal framework and establish a number of new organs to boost its community-building process.

The inherent power of the member states to facilitate governance for multiple diverse groups in their country has allowed them to strengthen their decision making. In the Malay language, the term muafakat best captures this strength, which loosely translates to consensus and cooperation but more than that, it is often used in the context of decision-making within societal structures. When such countries form a group, cooperation through mutual dialogue is bound to have a strategic role in regional cooperation. As observed by the grouping’s former Secretary-General, H.E. Ambassador Ong Keng Yong of Singapore, ASEAN continued to notch achievements after achievements based on the four “C’s”: community, Charter, connectivity and centrality. 

Active participation in ASEAN is one way of not giving in to the sway of any one power. ASEAN’s central nature over the years has ensured that it plays a crucial “manager” role in terms of dealing with competing influences in the region.

Another factor adding to the cooperation is the mention of “ASEAN Centrality” in several documents like the Charter. Centrality within ASEAN is defined as the proximity of the ties between ASEAN member states, intra-ASEAN coherence leading to centrality by way of enabling the organization to “gain access to resources, set the agenda, frame debates, and craft policies that benefit its member states.”

The principles of centrality also facilitated mutual dialogue between the states to tackle the COVID 19 issue. Joint statements and special summits were organized to establish collaboration between the states.

ASEAN like all previous regional efforts at community building before it will be expected to show to the world and its people, that it is a viable grouping that could face up to the challenges of consolidating political, security, economic and socio-cultural strengths for the benefit of not only its peoples but more importantly the community of nations outside the region and the world.

Humanitarian Assistance

Cooperation and assistance in humanitarian crisis and emergency is a feature which demarcates diplomacy from genuineness. Along with other member states, Malaysia has played a crucial role through financial and human resources in cases of emergencies. These included providing assistance to Indonesia, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines which were affected by natural disasters like in Aceh (tsunami) and Yogyakarta (earthquake), as well as being the intermediary for peace talks between the Philippine government and the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front).

Malaysia has been regarded as the most vocal country in criticizing and commenting on the issues surrounding the Myanmar-Rohingya crisis and plays a critical role in facilitating humanitarian assistance, both on its own and jointly with other ASEAN countries.

An active stand in such cases lays down the foundation for cooperation between countries. To truly honour the commitments for mutual security, a step in the right direction for human rights plays a key role. Assistance solely based on economic benefits may be beneficial in the short term, but such an alliance shall not survive in the long run.

Harsh Mahaseth is an Assistant Lecturer at Jindal Global Law School, and a Research Analyst at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University.

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Southeast Asia

The Strait of Malacca: China between Singapore and the United States

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According to the data of the U.S. Energy Information Administration, over 30% of maritime crude oil trade passes through the South China Sea. Over 90% of the crude oil arriving in that sea pass through the Strait of Malacca, i.e. the shortest sea route between suppliers in Africa and the Persian Gulf and markets in Asia, thus making it one of the main geographical hubs of black gold in the world.

The key factor is that many raw materials and materials for energy development must pass through this Strait. Currently, the transport of goods between East Asian countries, Europe and Africa must have the Strait of Malacca, controlled by Singapore, as a route – provided it is fast.

On September 24, 2019 Singapore and the United States signed the Protocol amending the 1990 Memorandum of Understanding on the U.S. use of facilities in Singapore.

Singapore had proposed to use U.S. warships, thus becoming the largest U.S. military base in Asia. The U.S. 7th Fleet and its ships, including aircraft carriers and other large vessels, provide logistics and maintenance services and greatly expand military control.

The 7th Fleet can cross the Strait of Malacca, enter the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea and reach the Gulf region within 24 hours. The U.S. military vessels in all the ports of the Strait can be used without prior notice. In this regard, the United States is also actively cooperating with Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries.

The United States has deployed more advanced weapons and equipment in Singapore. As long as there are military disputes in East and Southeast Asia, the United States will immediately block the Strait of Malacca and hence control the whole crude oil transport system. In case of conflict, the Strait of Malacca could easily be blocked, thus cutting China off from crucial energy resources.

Although the Chinese strategic oil reserves are sent from neighbouring countries, it is difficult to go on for over 60 days with reserves alone. Meanwhile the United States is using the financial market to drastically increase energy prices and possibly start an economic war.

If the Strait of Malacca is blocked, China has not enough energy supplies stored and it can sustain the situation for a very short lapse of time. It should be added that all military operations would be delayed.

Singapore is a country traditionally friendly to the United States. The reason is the same as Japan’s, because the United States has interests in the Far East, while keeping on encircling China, thus trying to break “the string of pearls”.

The United States supports Singapore, which has some influence in Southeast Asia because it has no strong neighbours. With a view to managing maritime transport, the most important thing is to have strong armed forces. Until the country can be conquered by force, the financial and commercial development model leads to a very high success rate.

Singapore has a surface of 721.5 square kilometres only, less than the province of Lodi, Lombardy. Nevertheless, its defence spending is three times that of neighbouring Malaysia, and accounts for about 3.1% of its GDP, which is more or less the same as the Russian military power (3.9%). This is the version of South-East Asia bequeathed by Great Britain, such a close ally of the United States to be considered the fifty-first star on its flag.

If Singapore wants to control its own power in the Strait of Malacca, it must contain and curb China. Without the Strait of Malacca, there would be no maritime centre absorbing the surrounding commercial and financial forces. As long as the deepwater port – where large military and commercial fleets can dock – is well-established, the place of delivery/passage for raw materials in Southeast Asia, from the Near and Middle East, the EU and Africa, will inevitably be Singapore.

This is the reason why – although China also has a huge export market – many of the bulk goods will be waiting in line to pass through Singapore’s “Caudine Forks”.

Since 2015 there has been a plan that could break the balance. The trade route to the Indian Ocean across the Strait of Malacca has problems with pirates, shipwrecks, mist, sediments and shallows. Its accident rate is twice as high as the Suez Canal and four times higher than the Panama Canal.

A shorter alternative route is to build a canal in the isthmus of Kra, Thailand. This would enable to spare time and reduce shipping costs as the route gets 1,000 kilometres shorter. The Chinese state-owned companies Liu Gong Machinery Co. Ltd and XCMG, as well as the private company Sany Heavy Industry Co Ltd, have taken the initiative to create a study group for the construction of the Kra Canal. The 100-kilometre artificial connection with the Indian Ocean would benefit not only China and ASEAN, but also trade of Japan and other countries, including the EU.

Thailand is located at the centre of the Indochina peninsula and leads to the important Mekong region and South Asia. This artificial canal would be about 100 kilometres from the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, so that the trade zone of South-East Asia should not pass through the Strait of Malacca.

However, according to a survey made five years ago, only 30% of Thai people was in favour of building the canal and at least 40% of them opposed it, for fear that it could cause political turmoil in Thailand, including environmental damage and corruption by the Thai government. An attempt was being made to convey the feeling that the Thai people were opposed to such initiative.

It is obvious that there are clear opponents: the biggest one is Singapore, of course. At that juncture, maritime trade in East and South-East Asia would leave the polis, which would be bound to lose its importance as a maritime bulwark and could even lose the U.S. protection. Nevertheless, on January 16, 2020, the Thai House of Representatives decided to set up a committee to study the Thai Canal project.

The Kra Canal would be very profitable for China. The countries concerned, namely Cambodia and Vietnam, are still hesitating. Thailand wants China to contribute with money and equipment, but it fears indirect control from China.

The Kra Canal would be controlled by China. Thailand may not operate and run it as planned, but it would reap the greatest benefits from it. Hence although the canal tolls may be much lower than the cost of development, China would still be willing to encourage Thailand to implement the project in view of creating another route bypassing U.S. control. China is also actively encouraging Myanmar to build an oil pipeline connecting Yunnan to Burmese ports.

China is willing to invest significantly and the aim is to bypass U.S. control, which has completely blocked China from the Pacific islands to Southeast Asia.

The energy and food that China needs cannot be self-produced, and the United States is trying to manage these two weaknesses by “moving Singapore on the chessboard”.

After World War II, the United States is the most striking example of “vertical community”, and “horizontal continuum“, to which the principle of “close and remote strike” applies. This refers to the economic power gap, not to kilometres as the crow flies. The U.S. strategy is to establish a long-term objective to prevent competitors from producing and developing cooperation.

The countries that have a large economic power gap vis-à-vis the United States are defined as “far away”, while the others close to the United States in terms of economic power and strength are defined as “near”. As a result, the neighbour always bothers and causes inconvenience in the world as is the case when living in a block of flats.

The U.S. strategy is designed to help and support the weaker side in the economic war – no matter if it is a dictatorship or an obscurantist and reactionary regime -in order to fight the strong side and achieve power supremacy. This balance can effectively prevent the emergence of a hegemonic power directly posing an economic-military threat to the United States. Supporting Singapore, Taiwan and Japan is certainly not an act of humanism and holding on to the “medieval” petromonarchies of the Near East does not mean strengthening the much-vaunted democracy.

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A crumbling Thai monarchy and the people’s longing for democracy

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As a nation, Thailand has escaped colonial subjugation. But, in the past one year, the Asian kingdom faces an unprecedented political crisis at home. Both the monarchy’s legitimacy and the military-linked government’s power are questioned by a legion of dissenting youth. How did things turn out this way? Here, I analyse.

***

At the centre of the city of Bangkok lies the Democracy Monument. It commemorates the historic Siamese Revolution of 1932 which led to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in what was then the Kingdom of Siam, by its military ruler, Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram who saw the monument as the central point of what he envisioned as a new Bangkok, Westernized and democratized in outlook.

But, people’s direct rule in the city and the Thai nation at large is still a distant dream for many, particularly the dissenting youth. The monarchy still has an influential role in Thai society, culture, and politics.

The Southeast Asian nation of Thailand, previously Siam, is ruled by the royal House of Chakri for the past three centuries. However, since the last 88 years, following the Siamese Revolution of 1932, it has been a constitutional monarchy, with king as a nominal head of state and the prime minister as the head of government. But, the country has a history of coups soon after this transition, making the military an influential player in its domestic politics.

So, what is happening in that country since early 2020? Why are the youth and the students protesting against the ruling establishment consisting of the king and the prime minister? What lies ahead?

People demands power transition

Protests began in March, this year, but it lost momentum due to the raging pandemic before starting again in July. Tensions escalated in mid-October when tens of thousands of young protesters took to the streets, mostly in Bangkok but also in other parts of Thailand.

The demonstrators demanded the resignation of General-turned-PM Prayuth Chan-ocha, a new and reformed democratic constitution, a reformed monarchy, more transparency in the government, and an end to the harassment of democracy activists. Police have responded with water cannons and by arresting protesters. The government has also issued an emergency decree prohibiting gatherings to curb the protests.

A section of the protesters went further with a list of ‘10 demands’ of intended reforms. They say, they do not seek to end the monarchy, rather reform it from within. But, on the other hand, there are pro-monarchy conservative royalists who support the government led by the military-aligned prime minister.

The protesters even tried to directly communicate with the king by the symbolic act of posting letters as an expression of their discontent with the establishment. The police have arrested hundreds of protesters so far. But, the unrest in Thailand has only intensified and spread to larger sections of the population.

Origins of the crisis

The origins of the current political stand-off began in the aftermath of the long-awaited March 2019 elections that brought five years of military junta rule to an end. Since a 2014 coup toppled the elected government of former PM Yingluck Shinawatra the kingdom has been reeling under junta rule that installed then General Prayuth Chan-ocha as Prime Minister.

But, after last year’s election, Prayuth resigned from the army, so he could run for Prime Minister’s office again as a civilian. He was supported by military-backed political parties and the election results were disputed by the Opposition parties, as he returned back to power as PM. But, his continuation indicated that Thai military remains a strong force in Thailand’s political scene, even though a civilian rule exists in paper.

In the disputed election, most Thai youths who are now at the forefront of protests supported the third largest party, the Future Forward Party. But, in February 2020, a court order ruled that the party should be disbanded. Young Thais, angry at the ruling, protested soon after. Then came the pandemic-induced lockdowns that restricted protests before it re-emerged in July.

A note on Thai monarchy

Thailand arguably has one of the world’s strictest lese-majeste rules that are aimed at curtailing public behaviour classifiable as criminal offences against the dignity of the reigning monarch and prohibits insults to the royal family. However, the Thai monarchy entered a period of transition after the death of former king Bhumibol Adulyadej, the father of the present king Maha Vajiralongkorn, in 2016 who reigned for long seven decades.

Adulyadej was largely seen as a unifying force in the Thai nation that has endured years of political turmoil, unlike his pompous and extravagant son who had spent much of his time in Germany since ascending to throne. While his people fiercely protested, the king stayed away from all that commotion in a foreign land away from home enjoying luxury quarantine in the Bavarian Alps with public money.

Thai protesters had earlier sought the German government to look into whether he had conducted state business while on German soil, such as the signing of royal commands and the annual expenditure act that would be unbecoming considering the behaviour expected from their king.

Moving against the flow

The latest protests by the youths and students raise justifiable questions on the legitimacy of the regal power in Thai ruling establishment. They intensely hope and raise their voices for a transition to full democracy, creating a sensitive backdrop to the grievances raised against the military-backed government, on the other side.

Meanwhile, PM Prayuth has repeatedly rejected the protesters’ demands to step down. With the looming pandemic affecting normalcy of life and the Thai government planning to extend the nation-wide state of emergency until mid-January next year, there is no foreseeable reprieve for the demands raised by protesters soon enough.

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Southeast Asia

Expectations from ASEAN Summit meetings

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The ASEAN summit meetings starting from November 12-15 will address issues which have challenged the Southeast Asian region this year, and much of the initial work has been discussed under the Vietnam chairmanship during the summit meetings. In fact, one of the critical areas which we discussed during ASEAN preparatory meetings and also during the subsequent East Asian Summit will be related to maintaining peace and also addressing the peaceful resolution of disputes, particularly in South China Sea, outlining the need for compliant to the UNCLOS, abiding by the principles of international law.

It is acknowledged that the different aspects related to regional security, trade and investment, addressing challenges related to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4th IR), developing mandate and consensus with regard to the ASEAN community vision, and also developing common consensus on environment protection, marine debris, river water pollution and transboundary haze. One of the important milestones that ASEAN has achieved in the last two decades has been expanding its external relations with countries such as Canada, Chile, EU and many other countries which contribute to the development and foreign direct investment in this region. These existing partnerships need to be complemented with new partners which can accelerate economic development and growth prospects.

It is acknowledged that the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) has been challenged in the past but new countries such as Cuba, Colombia, and South Africa have signed the treaty. The TAC has been discussed as an important element of maintaining regional peace and stability, and there is need for strengthening this process so that new entrants can be accommodated. The important aspect which have been really outlined last year has been with regard to the ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific concept. Therefore, there will be discussions that how complementarities could be explored between the organisation and the geopolitical concept. As in the ASEAN outlook towards Indo-Pacific it has been outlined that the cooperation can be explored in the terms of maritime connectivity, security, promoting sustainable development, and outlining new avenues for economic operation.

The issue of new membership in ASEAN might also be discussed. In the past few years countries such as Timor-Leste have been seeking to consider for their entry into the ASEAN but Timor need to fulfil certain basic criteria which can be discussed during these ASEAN meetings.

For ASEAN, the vital issue will be to engage the new US administration under the democrats and maintain their attention that US has been given to this region particularly in terms of SCS and also supplying military hardware to many of the countries which are facing tensions with China. Given the fact that Indonesia and Vietnam have been elected as a non-permanent member of the UN it is possible that the dialogue partners and these two countries would outline important areas which can be addressed at the highest level.


One of the areas that the ASEAN can explore can be undertaking extensive corporative arrangement with the United Nations as many countries within Southeast Asia are representing their cases to the UN and its associate agencies, synergy between the two organisations is foreseen. The ASEAN also needs to work on the emergency response and assessment team which includes rehabilitation and repatriation of displaced persons across this region in the wake of COVID-19.

Refugees has been a major bone of contention among Southeast Asian nations. In this regard it is pertinent that the ASEAN will seek indulgence of countries such as Myanmar and also address problems with regard to rehabilitation of the Rohingya refugees.
The safety with regard to the South China Sea and maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight would be critical for the regional maritime trade and commerce as well as civil aviation. The 2002 Declaration of the Code of Conduct of parties in the SCS has not been valued by dialogue partners such as China. Therefore, it is critical that the Code of Conduct (COC)should be discussed during the meetings with the dialogue partners. It is acknowledged that the mutual trust between the claimant parties has been on the downslide and the deficit in mutual trust has disturbed the peace and tranquillity in SCS.

The developments with regard to Korean peninsula and the dialogue with the US have given a hope that the Korean peninsula might seek peace and as two Southeast Asian countries (Singapore and Vietnam)were involved in the dialogue process between US and North Korea. The possibility of continuing the process under nee US administration might be discussed on the side-lines. This year has been harmed southeast Asian economies because of pandemics and floods, and therefore a consensus is required with regard to medicine, standard protocols and also into ASEAN cooperation among member countries.


One of the important initiatives that has been taken by the Vietnam was the ASEAN defence ministers meeting in February 2020, in which it was noted that coronavirus disease has been making a major impact in the regional security and stability, and there was a need for acknowledging it as a public health emergency. The chairman statement with regard to ASEAN collective response was acknowledged. It was stated that there should be a strong collaboration in terms of military medicine, and collaboration through a network of chemical, biological and radiological specialists across the southeast Asian countries. Another initiative which have been taken during the meeting has been to enhance practical cooperation among the defence establishments so as to address this pandemic and bring about best practices as well as engaging the ASEAN Centre for military medicine in undertaking research related to this. This meeting proclaimed that there is a need for exploring new initiatives and ways to contact fake news which might increase public anxiety and also hinder any collaborative activities within ASEAN.



With regard to theASEAN mandate it was critical that the impact of the COVID-19 on labour and employment need to be addressed so that the right of the migrant workers as well as developing progressive labour practices could be undertaken for enhancing competitiveness within the organisation as well as promoting safety and health protocols within the region.

The ASEAN has been addressing has been promotion of human resource development as well as developing networks for technical education and skills development. While the organisation has been preparing for promoting the fourth industry revolution and therefore it has become important to utilise technology for better inclusive and sustainable growth which can provide regular employment and growth opportunities among the labour across the region. Many of the countries in Southeast Asia have been large concentration of small and medium enterprises and are providing employment opportunities. Consequently, it has been found that there is a need for developing better labour practices as well as protecting the rights of the labour.
As discussed earlier one of the important meetings which was being held in April 2020 was to seek affirmation from the 15 countries participating in the RCEP programme to accelerate their efforts in actualising this regionwide free trade area, and Vietnam has been insistent that India  should be invited to partake in the negotiations once again.

In one of the statements made by the ASEAN chairman in June 2020 it was acknowledged that public health emergencies and the need to control the pandemic would be important for promoting resilience societies and healthy workforce. Importantly, since many of these ASEAN nations are export dependent economies, it will be critical that the resilience supply chain and a captive market is promoted in a big way. The dialogue between the health sector professionals as well as promoting technical exchanges related to big data, telemedicine and surveillance of the diseases need to be taken on in the forthcoming ASEAN meetings. It would be prudent that the ASEAN response fund and supporting economic recovery programme at regional level would help many nations through cross sectoral collaboration as well as mitigating the impact of this pandemic.

While it is acknowledged that the ASEAN community meeting would highlight the midterm review of the ASEAN community blueprints for the year 2025, it would also be critical that issues such as gender sensitivity, women in parliament, promoting ASEAN youth and also in the ASEAN Parliamentary assembly would be areas where Vietnam would like to take the lead. As the mandate for this year’s ASEAN meeting is “cohesive and responsive ASEAN” and therefore stress will always be there with regard to solidarity and centrality of this organisation.

The year 2020 would be a judicious milestone to look out into the future plan of action and how the organisation as a whole could work with regard to medical supplies, equipment, addressing public health emergencies and developing research and vaccine development program within the region itself. In the past the organisation has worked remarkably with regard to addressing environmental concerns, non-traditional security issues, and also taking security initiatives at the regional level.


Initiatives related to ASEAN integration among the mainland Southeast Asia countries would be a priority so that economic complementarities and division of labour as well as better production facilities should be developed across Southeast Asia. In terms of the connectivity within the organisation, the discussion would be related to infrastructure projects, supply chain resilience, building people to people connectivity   and also promoting higher education linkages between the dialogue partners and the ASEAN member nations.


One of the important elements which have been often discussed within the organisation has been developing the smart cities network, incorporating capacity building initiatives, developing repository of knowledge, and sharing best practices so that sustainable development as well as better resource management within the cities could be done. Dialogue related to the ASEAN community, aspects related to political security and cultural issues will be taken up as usual but it will be also critical that the associated organisations such as East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum and other associate organisations would be discussing international developments. It is expected that South China Sea and building consensus on single draft a letter to code of conduct would be a priority under UNCLOS provisions.

One cannot deny the fact that even though majority of the ASEAN meetings throughout the year have been done in cyber and online mode but the agreements and the understanding that have been developed through ASEAN meetings would require concerted effort and sincerity on the part of member countries and the ASEAN Chairman to bring it to a logical conclusion. The ASEAN chairman Vietnam has waved the magic wand and the outcome would be interesting to watch.

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