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What Will a Biden Presidency Mean for U.S.-Vietnam Relations?

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From former enemies, the United States and Vietnam became partners when they formed a comprehensive partnership in 2013. Under the Trump administration, U.S.-Vietnam relations have made remarkable progress. As Joe Biden is set to become the 46th president of the United States, U.S. foreign policy is expected to shift significantly. What will it mean for American-Vietnamese ties?

What will change?

Vietnam’s human rights record is the most sensitive issue in its relations with the United States. Although Washington recognizes that Hanoi has made some progress, concerns remain in freedom of expression, freedom of religion, ethnic minority rights, and labor rights. Members of the U.S. Congress, especially those whose constituencies include substantial Vietnamese American populations, have put pressure on the U.S. government to criticize Vietnam’s human rights practice.

The Trump administration, however, has downplayed the promotion of human rights in its relations with Hanoi. President Trump has not raised the issue to Vietnamese leaders even though he had the opportunities to do so during his speech at the2017 APEC Summit in Da Nang, when he met President Tran Dai Quang afterwards, and during his second visit to Hanoi in 2019. The subject of human rights is also absent in the statement from the Press Secretary commemorating 25 years of diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam, which talks about people-to-people ties, trade and investment, legacy of war issues, military ties, and peaceful resolution of disputes.

Unlike Trump, Biden pledges to prioritize U.S. commitments in “fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad”. In fact, Biden was U.S. vice president when the United States paid attention to Vietnam’s human rights practice. President Barack Obama discussed human rights issues with Vietnamese leaders during his remarks to welcome President Truong Tan Sang to the White House in 2013, his meeting with General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong at the Oval Office in 2015, and his speech to the people of Vietnam during his visit to Hanoi in 2016.

More important, Biden vows to renew U.S. democracy at home and promote it abroad. He asserts “democracy is not just the foundation of American society” but also “the wellspring of our power.”For Biden, democracy is his and his country’s value. These are the reasons to believe that the Biden administration will address Vietnam’s human rights record in its relations with Hanoi.

One of the main irritations in bilateral trade relations is  U.S. trade deficit with Vietnam. The figure has grown steadily since 1997 and surpassed $20 billion since 2014. From $39.5 billion in 2018, it grew up to $55.8 billion in 2019, and despite the disruptions in trade caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the figure reached$42.36 billion as of August 2020.

Trump has repeatedly complained about Vietnam’s large trade surplus with the United States. In February 2020, his administration removed Vietnam from the list of self-declaring developing countries that receive preferential trade benefits under the World Trade Organization. Although the Treasury’s report in January 2020 found that Vietnam exceeded the threshold for only one of the three criteria for currency devaluation—the bilateral trade deficit, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) launched another investigation into Vietnam’s alleged currency undervaluation under Section 301 in October 2020. In the latest move, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced on November 4th, 2020 that it would impose tariffs on passenger vehicles and light truck tires from Vietnam.

It is likely that the Biden administration will take a softer approach in dealing with Vietnam’s trade surplus. It will have several options, including keeping the tariff against Vietnam, filing a case at the World Trade Organization, seeking compensation through negotiation, or just simply dropping the case. It is important to note that the increase in the U.S. trade deficit with Vietnam is partly due to the U.S.-China trade war. Moreover, Biden does not believe in trade barriers and protectionism, so it is unlikely that his administration will further impose tariffs on Vietnam.

What will continue?

In the context of U.S.-China strategic competition, Vietnam has become increasingly important in U.S. foreign policy. The Trump administration identified Vietnam as an emerging economic and security partner in the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy, the 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy, and the 2019 Indo-Pacific Report.

China’s provocative and unilateral actions in the South China Sea have driven Vietnam closer to the United States at a remarkable pace. From former enemies, the two countries became comprehensive partners in 2013. The Trump administration has strengthened its relations with Hanoi in various aspects and promised to enhance their comprehensive partnership in a joint statement issued in 2017. Vietnam is now the 10th trading partner of the United States.

Biden makes it clear that “the United States does need to get tough with China… The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors”. He promises to deepen partnerships to advance shared values in a region and uphold diplomacy as U.S. primary tool of foreign policy. For him, the answer to the China threat is “more friendships, more cooperation, more alliances”. Therefore, Biden will continue to strengthen U.S. partnership with Vietnam.

During the Vanguard Bank incident in early July 2019, in which the Chinese survey ship Haiyang  Dizhi 8 and its armed escorts entered Vietnam’s claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the Trump administration issued a series of strong statements criticizing China for its coercion and interference with Vietnam’s long-standing oil and gas activities .

In July 2020, U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo issued a statement on U.S. position on maritime claims in the South China Sea. The statement makes it clear that “Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them”. It also aligns the U.S. position on China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea with the 2016 Tribunal’s decision. The statement further confirms “America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law”.

As China’s assertive pursuit of its claims in the South China Sea threatens the freedom of the seas that is essential to U.S. national interests, Biden will continue a tough stance on China and support other claimants in the South China Sea, including Vietnam.

Under the Trump administration, U.S.-Vietnam defense ties have grown dramatically. The United States has helped Vietnam improve its law enforcement capability and maritime security. The U.S. Coast Guard transferred a Hamilton-class cutter to the Vietnam Coast Guard in May 2017 and promised to deliver a second one sometime in 2020. Washington also provided 18 “Metal Shark” patrol boats to Hanoi between 2017 and 2019. Then-U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited Vietnam twice in 2018. The U.S. Navy has sent two aircraft carriers to Vietnam’s port—the USS Carl Vinson in March 2018 and the USS Theodore Roosevelt in March 2020. Vietnam joined the Rim of the Pacific exercise in 2018 and was invited to participate again in 2020 (but did not participate because of the COVID-19 pandemic). As concerns about China remain, it is expected that the United States under Biden will continue to strengthen defense ties with Vietnam.

The two countries are heading toward the direction for a strategic partnership. However, the pace to get there depends on how Hanoi will improve its human rights record and how the Biden administration will handle the U.S. trade deficit with Vietnam.

Bich T Tran is a PhD candidate at the University of Antwerp and a Researcher at the Global Affairs Research Center, Ryukoku University.

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Southeast Asia

The National Unity Government and the Rohingya Issue in Myanmar: A New Twist?

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In a Twitter message on 3 June 2021, the National Unity Government (NUG) in Myanmar announced a new policy position about the Rohingya issue. Entitled as ‘Policy Position on the Rohingya in Rakhine State’ the NUG unequivocally spells out, “In honour of human rights and human dignity and also to eradicate the conflicts and root causes in the Union, the NUG aims to build up a prosperous and federal democratic union where all ethnic groups belonging to the Union can live together peacefully. This objective is clearly stated in the Federal Democracy Charter.’ The statement further says, ‘We invite Rohingyas to join hands with us and others to participate in the Spring Revolution against the military dictatorship in all possible ways.’

This marks a monumental policy change on the Rohingya issue by the NUG that did not include any Rohingya when it was formed on April 16, 2021. It may be mentioned that the NUG includes a president, state counsellor, vice president, prime minister and 11 ministers for 12 ministries. There are also 12 deputy ministers appointed by the CRPH.  Of the 26 total cabinet members, 13 belong to ethnic nationalities, and eight are women. International community particularly global civil society actors criticized the NUG for excluding the Rohingyas in the newly formed civilian government. It is, indeed, a question about the credibility of the government when it talks about federal democracy, but excludes a community who have been living in Myanmar for centuries.

The new statement from the NUG is a welcome development and an adjustment of their position with a genuine spirit of bringing all ethnic groups together and create a strong platform against the brutal and genocidal military regime in Myanmar. The February 2021 military coup in Myanmar is a watershed political development in the country that has dramatically changed the attitudes and perception oof the Myanmar people and the civilian political forces because of illegality, extreme form of brutality and betrayal to democratic change. The spontaneous social movements by the Myanmar people with a high risk of lives and livelihoods was perhaps unimaginable to the Junta government as well as global community. The civilian political forces possibly did not think such kind of sustained resistance in the form of Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) in Myanmar where people suffered direct military rule for more than five decades. Military rule was the order of the day in the country.

Against this backdrop, the statement of the NUG deserves a huge attention. Why has the NUG issue the statement? What is the significance of this statement for the status of the Rohingyas and the future of democracy in Myanmar? These questions are vital for establishing the rights of the Rohingyas who have been suffering as stateless people and living in different countries as the forcibly displaced people. Particularly, the presence of the 1.1 million Rohingyas in Bangladesh in the camps of Cox’s Bazar and Bhashan Char is a stark reality and a great casualty of humanity in the present world where a country called Myanmar can force more than a million of its residents overnight and continue to show the defiance not to accept them. The world is virtually silent!

In understanding the significance of the statement of the NUG we can identify several issues that deserve to be taken into consideration. First, the reason behind the change of position of the NUG on the question of Rohingyas is clearly spelled out at the bottom of the statement where they have urged the Rohingyas to join the movement to oust the military regime in Myanmar. It is not only addressed to the Rohingya people, but also to the forces and parties in the world who are supporting the cause of the Rohingyas. From this perspective it has a huge diplomatic purpose to bolster the movement of the NUG and CDM in their fight against the military regime. Particularly, the Western world, the United Nations and the Muslim countries who have expressed their solidarity and compassion for the Rohingyas and have devoted their resources for them. Second, the statement is not just a declaration of support of the NUG to the Rohingyas. It contains a roadmap about solving the Rohingya crisis for which some of the members of the NUG were liable. The leadership of the National League for Democracy (NLD) betrayed with the Rohingyas when their leader Aung San Suu Kyi joined hands with the Tatmadaw in 2011 and ruled the country jointly and ditched the cause of the Rohingyas.

The NLD leader also defended the crimes against humanity of the military leaders in the International Court of Justice (ICJ). It was a true infidelity to the Rohingyas and also to her own long credentials as a fighter for democracy. Therefore, to establish a credibility of their declaration, the NUG shows a way-out to resolve the Rohingya crisis. They have promised to repeal and amend laws such as the 1982 Citizenship laws by the new constitution. This new Citizenship Act must base citizenship on birth in Myanmar or birth anywhere as a child of Myanmar citizens. It is also mentioned that the NUG is in process of abolishing National Verification Cards to recognize Rohingyas as citizens. These two laws have discriminated for Rohingyas as the core ground. The NUG reaffirms to implement the aggrements signed with Rohingya repatriation and also agreed to Kofi Anan’s 88 points recommendations over Rohingya legal rights.

Third, the statement acknowledges the rights of Rohingya people and atrocity crimes they faced in Myanmar. The statement represents a shift from the persecution of the Rohingya by the military junta as well as previous governments, which routinely denied the existence of the Rohingya as well as evidence of mass atrocity crimes they suffered. The statement commits the NUG to ensuring justice and accountability for crimes against Rohingya in Myanmar. The NUG also affirmed its commitment to “voluntary, safe, and dignified repatriation” of Rohingya refugees to Rakhine State. The NUG makes a bold promise, “We will actively seek justice and accountability for all crimes committed by the military against the Rohingyas and all other people of Myanmar throughout our history.” They have gone to the extent of profound redressing of the past crimes and injustice as they say, “We intend if necessary to initiate processes to grant [the] International Criminal Court jurisdiction over crimes committed within Myanmar against the Rohingyas and other communities.”

Fourth, a critical issue is how would the supporters and sympathizers of the Tatmadaw at home and abroad respond to this major policy reversal of the NUG and its leadership who once viewed the Rohingyas in the same eyes as with the Tatmadaw? Understandably, China, Russia, ASEAN, India and several pro-military regime actors would not find it encouraging. They may rule it out at a tactic of the NUG to garner the global support particularly from the UN and West. Fifth, whatever the reactions of the global community, the Tatmadaw would find it a new avenue of diplomatic pressure on them. However, they will rule out this position as the military regime has already declared the NUG as a ‘terrorist’ outfit. Rather, the Tatmadaw would appeal to the Buddhist nationalists and Bamar people that the NUG has a sinister objective to legitimize the Rohingyas as citizens of the country.

Finally, the crux of the matter is that it is a great victory of the Rohingyas to show the world that the successive Myanmar regimes – military and pseudo military – have used false narratives, including branding them as terrorists, to undermine their rights and justice in the country where they have been living for centuries with their own identity. The NUG has made it loud and clear to the world that the military junta in the country is pursuing an apartheid policy and committed the crimes against humanity widely referred as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘genocide’.

In conclusion, to mean the business and establish a credibility of their intention expressed in the new policy position, the NUG of Myanmar should appoint an ethnic-Rohingya member to the cabinet who would help it implement and expand upon its new policy on the rights of Rohingya people. The NUG must continue to highlight meaningful consultation with Rohingya people globally, including Rohingya women. This new twist in the position of the civilian leadership in Myanmar who once reigned power and supported the military regime is critical for the future of the Rohingya issue and if it sustains, then the prospect of democracy in the post-Tatmadaw Myanmar will energize pro-democracy forces and boost global support for the NUG.

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Southeast Asia

Bargaining and Strengthening position of EEZ: Indonesia’s Diplomacy in South China Sea

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The South China Sea issue is getting more complex and has become an international issue that never ends until now. Because in addition the water areas are rich in natural resources both from energy sources, offshore and fisheries, on the other hand,  the waters of the South China Sea also become a strategic territory because the South China Sea is a trade route that delivers international goods and services with the amount of US$5 trillion. Therefore, automatically, these territories become a bone of contention for many countries especially China and four ASEAN member countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei Darussalam in utilizing natural resources, where the involvement of many countries in claiming ownership of the South China Sea can trigger the occurrence of tension in an area such as the occurrence of conflicts such as there are showing of force between the armed forces, military intervention, and monitoring each other in the territorial waters of the South China Sea. These activities will disrupt the security stability of the South China Sea which triggers the threat of waters and disrupt the stability of neighbor countries that it close to the territorial. Coupled with the existence of China’s ownership claiming of the entire South China Sea through the Nine Dash Line rule, which is an ancient rule that emerged from Chinese history. This rule violates International law and is an illegal act, especially in violation of UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) is an international treaty that was adopted and signed in 1982. In which the treaty emphasizes the existence of national sovereignty over the territorial sea as far as 12 miles from the coast and the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as far as 200 miles.

The Importance of Bargaining and Strengthening position of EEZ Indonesia Diplomacy In South China Sea

Indonesia has no claim position and disputes in the waters of the South China Sea. Because Indonesia respects the International law of the sea agreement. However, there is Indonesia’s EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) which intersects with China’s Nine Dash Line. It is clear that this action violates UNCLOS and has become an illegal action. Because China still maintains the claims and rules of the Nine Dash Line which is a rule that come from Chinese history that is contrary to International Law. It can be proven by the presence of a Chinese Coast Guard ship entering the Indonesian Exclusive Economic Zone in the North Natuna Sea, it can automatically disrupt the stability of Indonesia’s territory and can become a problem and it is obvious that China violates the International norms. Therefore, Indonesia is important to strengthen Indonesia’s diplomatic position in its EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) through negotiations with China through South China Sea diplomacy by maintaining its EEZ position to avoid inequality between the Nine Dash Line and Indonesia’s EEZ , especially in the Natuna Sea. Where this diplomatic activity can be used as a more effective strategy because it prioritizes peace or soft power strategy rather than through hard power diplomacies like military which can cause tension between the two countries, especially Indonesia and China. Indonesia and China have established diplomatic relations for 70 years in various aspects, both in terms of economy, education, military, religion, as well as public diplomacy activities that involving people to people strategy in each country as a strategy to maintain the relationship between two countries. As good partner country, Indonesia and China also need to carry out diplomacy activity, especially Indonesia in maintaining and showing a standing position and considering the overlapping Nine Dash Line in the Exclusive Economic Zone which if Indonesia does diplomacy through soft power, both countries will become good negotiating partners. Indonesia and China are coexistence with each other, therefore more comprehensive cooperation is important in discussing problems from various aspects, in particular, Indonesia must strengthen the position of Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone to maintain the sovereign rights owned, especially the Natuna waters.

Therefore, Indonesia is important to negotiate and make a clear standing position in the EEZ by conducting diplomacy that is sustainable and encouraging China not to occupy Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone. As Indonesia has sovereign rights in the waters of the South China Sea which consists of territorial integrity, regional stability, and economic interests. However, with the existence of Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which has been intersectingwith China’s Nine Dash Line, this has led to a reduction in Indonesia’s sovereign rights which can be feared to disrupt the stability of the international security of Indonesia waters, especially the Natuna Islands which can disrupt many activities such as navigation activities, activities in exploring natural resources, and can threaten the national stability of the country. It because the Natuna Island is an asset that owned by Indonesia which greatly influences the life of civil society in the Natuna Archipelago region and depends on it for their lives by looking for natural resources in the Natuna island. Therefore in addition to economic cooperation, education and others. There is also a need for clear cooperation and certainty from each country, especially Indonesia and China, regarding their clarity in claiming waters without offending the boundaries of the neighboring waters, especially the Indonesian territory in the Natuna Islands through diplomatic activities, which with the existence of diplomatic activities, bilateral negotiations from the two countries. It can be a strategy to achieve peace and prevent conflicts. Because until now Indonesia is dependent on China from any aspect in completing the country’s needs especially through Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), therefore the strategy in maintaining Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) position through bilateral diplomacy can be a great strategy to create peace, without undermined cooperation and diplomatic relations between two countries especially must implement the aim and the purposes of ASEAN  to promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law.

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The thorny issue of the South China Sea between Japan, China and Vietnam

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Photo: Ibrahim Mushan/Unsplash

Japan is a long and narrow island country from North to South and narrower from East to West. Its land surface (377,975 square kilometres) is little larger than Italy’s. It borders the Pacific Ocean to the East and looks across the ocean to the United States of America to the East; to the West it faces China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea), as well as the Russian Federation by sea but without strategic depth.

The rise of modern Japan during the Meiji Restoration elevated it at the time to the rank of “foundation of all Asian nations”. It opened up thousands of multiple political-military outlets and spread the country’s prestige in all directions. In so doing, it showed Japan’s intention to go beyond its Japanese archipelago and spread abroad.

This was confirmed, in fact, by the forms of continental policy, proposing a line of defence sovereignty and the theory of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere or Greater East Asia Collective Prosperity Sphere, shown in the 1940s.

In response to the situation in the Far East after World War I, Japan implemented a strategy of moving from North to South and in World War II it set for itself the goal of moving its interests to the Republic of China. When the armed forces invaded an internally divided China, due to Japan’s lack of internal resources, the self-sufficiency economic situation was seriously challenged, with the results we all know.

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is located in the Eastern part of the Indochina peninsula, bordering China to the North, Laos and Cambodia to the West and the South China Sea to the East and the South. It covers an area of 331,212 square kilometres (slightly more than Italy’s). Its coastline is 3,260 km long (excluding islands), and the country stretches 1,600 kilometres from North to South: its narrowest point is 50 kilometres.

Mountains are high in the West and low in the East. Three quarters of the territory is mountainous. In the mid-19th century, Vietnam had no concept of marine economy or trade. However, with the occupation of some oil- and gas-rich areas and islands in the South China Sea, as well as through private development, Vietnam gained huge economic benefits, and has later formulated a series of marine policies since the 1960s.

In 2007, it approved a marine development project with 2020 as its goal. With strategic planning it tirelessly pursued the goals of a “sea power” and adopted a policy to strongly develop the marine economy, combining marine and maritime economy with national defence and security. Vietnam did not give up and fought for every square inch of island land, with the aim of obtaining a favourable strategic position and practical advantages.

As the awareness of maritime sovereignty grew, in the midst of fierce conflicts of national interests and drastic changes in international and regional geopolitical relations, Japan and Vietnam found themselves in the Senkaku (Chinese: Diaoyu), Paracel (Chinese: XishaQuan; Vietnamese: Hoàng Sa) and Spratly (Chinese: Nansha; Vietnamese: Truong Sa) islands.

There has been an open debate on the sovereignty issue. So far the disputes between China and Japan over the ownership of the South China Sea islands have not been properly resolved. The sovereignty of the South China Sea islands has become a serious issue that challenges bilateral relations between China and Japan, as well as the bilateral relations between China and Vietnam.

Indeed, one of the important goals in strengthening Japan’s and Vietnam’s maritime strategies is the use of oil and gas resources, but the dispute over the sovereignty of territorial waters and related exclusive economic zones is the most important issue.

With technological development, the earth’s resources will gradually shrink and be depleted. The ocean’s abundant resources will become the last piece of territory that can offer resources to the earth’s countries. Clearly the division of maritime borders and the island sovereignty between Japan and Vietnam involves the fundamental interests of national territorial sovereignties, and the various maritime measures and policies adopted by these two countries in the maritime sector will have a huge impact on the South China Sea. This impact is also the main reason for the stability of the South China Sea in the future.

As seen above, the issues regarding the South China Sea are complex and the other major player, namely the United States of America, must act cautiously and take precautions when dealing with the issue of these shores. Moreover, the effectiveness of its South China Sea policy should also be measured by whether it favours the achievement of the US strategic goals without coming into conflict with the People’s Republic of China, not least because of the presence of US military bases in the area.

Certainly, the United States will use the so-called South China Sea sovereignty issue in the Asia-Pacific region to incite China’s neighbours in the short term, but it must be said that in the long term the US influence will gradually decrease due to issues of greater remoteness. Dominance is waning, and the course of international relations is changing and cracking traditional hegemonies.

This is the iron law of historical development. China’s rise must therefore ensure the international security and fluidity of the South China Sea. Japan and Vietnam are the main reasons that will influence the stability of the South China Sea in the future.

As a result, China is stepping up the definition and implementation of the South China Sea military and maritime economic strategy. Having a strong ocean capability is the expression of a country’s comprehensive and global value in politics, economics and business, national defence, science and technology.

With the fast development of global industrial modernisation, China is an economically and demographically rich country. In the future, the South China Sea will be an important channel linking China to the rest of the world. The South China Sea and its coastal areas will be key strategic regions, and will cross the economic construction and national defence security of every country bordering it.

Fluidity and prosperity are also the ultimate goal of China’s rise. On the contrary, once wars and conflicts occur in these areas, they will affect and warn China’s economy and national defence security. Therefore, military strategy in the South China Sea outweighs economic value, if the latter is not adequately protected.

The confrontation over the South China Sea is not limited to a specific strategy in the field of maritime economy, but to a mutual development strategy that embodies the will of the coastal countries which, facing the ocean, are confronted with their own future.

At present, China itself is actively pursuing its maritime strategy, starting with maintaining and reclaiming sovereignty over territories traditionally belonging to the Motherland, by undertaking a more advanced military presence. It is also joining other countries in oil and gas exploration, as well as in mining, by strengthening research and sharing based on historical and legal principles.

Strengthening its presence, also through the construction of coastal, offshore and island areas, is a gradual march towards deep and distant seas, in line with the development interests for the South China Sea.

Provinces and cities in countries bordering the South China Sea are also considering the development of marine economy as an important goal, because the ocean is a strategic resource for the sustainable development of mankind and belongs to everyone.

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