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Assessment of Vietnam’s Chairmanship of ASEAN in 2020

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Vietnam took over the chairmanship of ASEAN from Thailand in November 2019, and outlined the motto for the ASEAN meetings in 2020 to be ‘cohesive and responsive’. This was meant to bring about more consensus and unity with regard to initiatives such as promoting internal strength of the organisation, developing economic connectivity and integration as well as revisiting the ASEAN values and identities in the context of new emerging challenges. Vietnam took the chairmanship of ASEAN when the organisation was facing challenges with regard to peace and security, climate change affects, and also the need for outlining the future for developing the region as an ASEAN community.

In the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc speech given in January 2020, he clearly outlined that the organisation needs to work on community, capacity, identity and also developing operational efficiency of the organisation. The main theme of the organisation was to bring about ASEAN community spirit. Over the period of eleven months ASEAN has worked strongly with regard to developing better relationship with dialogue partners including European Union, China and India as well as coordinating meetings between ASEAN and Japan, most of them in online mode.

Interestingly, the agenda for the year 2020 has been outlined for ASEAN under the Vietnam chairmanship and there were challenges with regard to addressing issues related to economic integration and also developing common protocols about public health emergencies, and sharing of information related to the countermeasures against COVID- 19. In fact, during the ASEAN senior officials meeting many issues which have been discussed in the past have been highlighted and a common consensus was reached. During the ASEAN foreign ministers meeting which was held in September 2020, it was highlighted that there is a need for reinforcing the ASEAN community vision of the year 2020, and buttressing ASEAN centrality in new multilateral formulations in the region, clearly alluding to the Indo-Pacific construct.

Vietnam has effectively brought about comprehensive assessment of the institutional mechanisms within the organisation, and also reviewed the documents with regard to ASEAN community blueprints. The most important aspect which has been highlighted by Vietnam has been developing collective effort against the COVID-19 pandemic, and establishing joint groups related to public health emergencies. The challenges for the post COVID-19 recovery have already been considered by the ASEAN organisation and it was suggested that the organisation should undertake comprehensive recovery framework as well as a time bound implementation plan. This highlighted the need for research and joint production, and distribution of vaccines through cold chain supply networks so that the larger population of the Southeast Asia could be protected from this pandemic in future.

The major consideration which have been addressed by Hanoi has been in the field of trade facilitation and doing away with unnecessary non-tariff measures so that supply resilience as well as new challenges such as food security, financial stability and issues related to energy can be addressed in a cohesive way.                                 

One of the earliest meetings which was conducted by Vietnam has been in the field of ASEAN Coordinating Council (ACC) organised at Laos which acknowledged the gravity of the situation in the COVID-19 phase, and stated that ASEAN solidarity and unity is necessary for preventing and making countermeasures against this pandemic. This meeting undertook special measures such as emergency operations centre and also taking necessary cohesive joint actions related to assistance, information and sharing of best practices. Outlining the need for cooperation with ASEAN dialogue partners, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and related bodies, highlighted the adeptness of Vietnam in understanding the problems with regard to pandemics and bringing about consensus on these issues.

Even before ACC meetings when the foreign ministers retreat was held in January 2020, the issues of the stability and prosperity as well as addressing the emerging challenges in the South China Sea was addressed without any biases. Even though one of the biggest handicaps which was faced by Vietnam during the whole year has been conduct of online conferences and developing understanding among ASEAN member states but Vietnam very tactfully addressed the issue of 4th industry revolution in the meetings,  and how it is going to change the economic landscape of the region. It also highlighted the relevance of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) and exuded confidence that many other non-regional countries will be accepting the TAC.

Major initiatives which have been taken by the Vietnam under the chairmanship included better cooperation on transnational crime, public security and coordination among the ASEAN law enforcement agencies. Recognizing the need for better financial architecture in the Southeast Asia, Hanoi has brought about dialogue between financial institutions and banking sectors in Southeast Asia, and taking a cue from G-20 summits, it also addressed that there is a need for developing better organised financial architecture which can bring about financial stability.

One must acknowledge the fact that despite lot of constraints because of the online meetings, Vietnam was still able to get approval of more than 42 documents during the September meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers. The one interesting part was to bring about more activities and responsibilities to the ASEAN Regional Forum under the Hanoi Plan of Action -II (2020-2025). One of the major highlights has been discussing the South China Sea, and referring to it as East Sea during the ministerial meetings. 

                                                
The forthcoming 37th ASEAN summit meeting would be highlighting the challenges that the region faces in terms of ASEAN centrality, bringing about ASEAN unity and resilience as well as promoting trust among the members. The issue of Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea /East Sea needs to be resolved so that China can be brought to the table and sign on the compliant mechanisms related to the East Sea. It also needs to be brought to the attention that economic recovery within ASEAN and addressing the non-traditional challenges such as terrorism, natural disasters, catastrophes, climate change as well as increasing transnational crime need cooperation at regional level, and also promote intra organisational understanding so that these challenges need to be addressed on a priority basis. Now when there are increasing US China tensions in the South China Sea/East Sea as well as the problems with regard to COVID-19 pandemic, the discussions will be intense and therefore bringing about consensus would be a difficult job. Further the challenge of holding this meeting in person would require a lot of logistical support and critical thinking so that public health and sanitation are not compromised. 

The task for Vietnam would be cut out for the forthcoming ASEAN summit meeting. It needs to be seen how the region looks into the pandemics, the floods and other natural disasters among the member countries while at the same time developing standard operating procedures and cooperative mechanisms so that citizens in Southeast Asian countries can be protected. Vietnam is expected to take the lead with regard to outlining the utility of TAC, undertaking preparations with regard to granting development partnership to European nations such as France and Italy well at the same time bringing Cuba and Columbia as the new signatory to the TAC. Many of the issues which have been addressed in the previous meetings need to be reinforced in the context of developing trust, inclusive, open and rule-based regional security architecture. It would be prudent to note the suggestions which will be coming from the dialogue partners and also many other agencies which are involved in the process of maintaining of security and stability as well as the agenda for developing the ASEAN community in future.          

Pankaj Jha is faculty with Jindal School of International Affairs, O P Jindal Global University, Sonepat. He can be reached at pankajstrategic[at]gmail.com

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Southeast Asia

Cambodia’s Hun Sen, Asia’s longest-serving PM, continues to quell the Opposition

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For the past 35 years, the former French colony of Cambodia is ruled by the 68-year-old Prime Minister Hun Sen, Asia’s longest serving head of the government. His policies are regarded as autocratic, aimed at forcibly limiting the scope for the Opposition to rise politically and come to the forefront of democratic activism.

The latest in line of such policies is the politically-motivated mass trials of more than a hundred members and supporters of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

The 2012-founded CNRP’s unexpected success in the polls of 2013 and 2017 was seen by Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party with trepidation. The democratic opposition party’s performance came amid sustained pressures of intimidation and electoral malpractice.

The CNRP was the only opposition represented in the country’s National Assembly or lower house of the parliament, with 55 out of 123 seats, until November 2017 when the pro-Sen Supreme Court ruled to dissolve the party, ending its five years of existence.

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights referred to this arbitrary move as the final nail in the coffin for Cambodian democracy. Also, CNRP’s leader Kem Sokha was arrested on fake charges of treason, accusing him of conspiring with the US to overthrow the prime minister and his government, a claim which Washington has categorically rejected.

Strikingly, these moves came ahead of the 2018 election. In the absence of an effective Opposition, Hun Sen’s CPP unsurprisingly won 100% of parliamentary seats in the last elections held in July 2018.

Meanwhile, Sen’s biggest political rival during his three-and-a-half decade rule, Sam Rainsy, has been living in exile in Paris for the past fifteen years. Last year, he was planning to return to Cambodia along with other senior opposition figures via Thailand, but was denied boarding on the Thai flight due to Cambodian threats to the airlines.

However, to Sen and the CPP’s dismay, in January 2020, some former members of the CNRP and other democratic activists announced the formation of a new party named the Cambodian Nation Love Party (CNLP) to continue the CNRP’s legacy and participate in future elections.

The Cambodian people’s undying quest for democratic reforms was exemplified with the formation of a new democratic party. Sen’s previous attempt to prevent the erstwhile CNRP from reconstituting itself under another name, by banning more than 100 of its leading members from politics for a period of five years thus failed to reap sustainable gains.

As the suppression of democratic expression continues for a long time now, relations with the West have deteriorated in the past few years, pushing the ASEAN country further into Beijing’s orbit. The US is also watching the trial closely. Meanwhile, the European Union, a key export destination for Cambodia, has withdrawn special trade privileges given earlier.

Now, the recent summoning of 140 ex-CNRP members and supporters, for charges of conspiracy and attempting to overthrow the government, is the latest political drama in the long set of desperate moves from Hun Sen to cling on to power.

Among those who showed up in court include former opposition senator Thach Setha and Cambodian-American human rights lawyer, Theary Seng. But, there are many who fled into exile believing that they would not be given a fair trial.

Cambodia, bearing the painful memory of a genocide that happened under Pol Pot’s notorious Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s killing 2 million people, saw the country slipping into the hands of another would-be autocratic leader, Hun Sen, in 1985.

The interventions by the United Nations and other human rights-oriented organisations appear to be failing in the Southeast Asian nation as long-established democratic processes drift away and elections are held for namesake, adding up to the political drama. With Sen unwilling to forfeit power, the future prospects for Cambodia seem to be a dreary continuation of the past.

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The 2020 Myanmar Election and China: Push and Pull factor in ‘Paukphaw’ friendship

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National Democratic League (NLD), the ruling party of Myanmar under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had a landslide victory in the election, which led the party to continue in power for another five years. While Myanmar still struggling with the civil war crisis and without any solution-oriented approach the crisis in Rohingya is nowhere near to end since the breakout of the severe crisis in 2017.

The pre-election and post-election international media coverage and scholarly discussion on Myanmar bring back the China factor in the Myanmar election and general China’s undeniable ties with Myanmar. It’s been argued that a vote for Aung San Suu Kyi would mean the continuation of the unprecedented expansion of China in the country and a vote for multi-ethnic parties would mean resistance to China-backed infrastructure and other projects.

While the backlashes against China among multi-ethnic parties and towards China-led infrastructure projects are omnipresent in Myanmar, however, China has not loosed its heart to engage in the Myanmar peace process. It is also to be noted that China does not only have good relation with NLD but it also keeps its relationship with the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). It also frequently engages itself in discussion with ethnic groups. What China likes to call itself is a “neutral player”. Thus, the election results would not have a significant impact on the China-Myanmar relationship.  

The irk of Western countries towards Myanmar, who initially supported Myanmar’s democratic transition only intensified with the 2020 election as the Myanmar election commission only allowed election in 8 townships in Rohingya state, and denied election in 9 other townships. A joint statement was issued under the leadership of the UK and the US regarding the inclusion of left out Rohingyas into the election along with urging Myanmar to be more serious regarding the global ceasefire and confidence-building steps that include lifting restrictions on access to health, education, and basic services, lifting restrictions on freedom of movement. China’s as under the principle of non-interference abstained from commenting on the exclusion of nine districts in Rohingya state from the election. Chinese government since 2017 has blocked draft resolutions at UNSC regarding international intervention in the crisis in Myanmar. China, however bilaterally posited itself as a mediator between Myanmar and Bangladesh on the repatriation of Rohingyas. A role, China now often seems to play in conflict-ridden countries, for example in the Afghan peace process China plays a similar mediator role.  

Myanmar’s foreign policy after 2015 and China

After the first democratic election in Myanmar in 2015, and NLD’s new manifesto was focused on upholding ‘an active and independent foreign policy’. Under the AngSyu Ki leadership, the foreign policy of Myanmar was considered to be hedging towards a neutralist foreign policy to work together for the benefit of the region on issues relating to regional organizations and programs. Another important pledge in Myanmar’s 2015 foreign policy manifesto was to “to identify and cooperate with other countries on joint economic enterprises of mutual benefit. In particular, to work together for the benefit of the region on issues relating to regional organizations and programs.” Which, as mentioned by Moe Thuzar of Singapore’s ISEAS-YusofIshak Institute is missing in the 2020 Manifesto. The reason for missing the important article from the 2020 manifesto could be Myanmar’s subtle attempt to balance China’s unprecedented presence in the region. As, it also aligns with some of the recent activities of other international actors in Myanmar. Such as high-level delegation visits by India, in October 2020, Myanmar’s growing interest in business engagement with Hong Kong, and eagerness to expand its economic co-operation with other Asian countries such as South Korea and Singapore. All this renewed interest within a span of two months from September to October 2020, before the election in Myanmar also could be an attempt to recover the focus in Myanmar’s democratic transition as opposed to growing clout over claiming Myanmar as an authoritarian regime, especially after 2017.

In terms of Myanmar’s policy towards China, Myanmar could not be seen as prey to China’s economic interest. As, even though the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor is kicking off, Myanmar is still apprehensive regarding embracing all of the Chinese lead projects. According to Irrawaddy times, from China’s originally proposed 40 projects, only nine projects were tentatively agreed to implement from both sides under China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC).

AyungSyu Ki’s diplomatic shrewdness is evident in Myanmar’s China policy. The country despite using China as a shield to defend itself from international intervention, China has not completely able to unlock all economic leverages. China’s patience with Myanmar also relates to the fact of ensuring security in its border province. 

Yang Jiechi, the head of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party’s short September visit to Myanmar was an indication that China does not take Myanmar for granted to materialize the economic projects, it has started in the country under the banner of BRI, Especially after the 2017 launch of China Myanmar Economic Corridor. Before NLD came into power in 2015, the anti-Chinese sentiments in Myanmar were more prominent, as it has led to President Thein Sein to halt the Myitsone Dam in 2011. Scholars have argued that Myanmar’s skepticism over Chinese led projects between 2011-2012 could be seen as a reaction to its proximity with the West, as Western sanctions were slowly lifted for a brief period (Ganesan, 2017). Thus, as the Western sanctions grew after 2017, Myanmar hedged towards China. Even though, Myanmar is always dubious about China’s economic diplomacy in Myanmar.

However, Myanmar does return the favor to China diplomatically by recognizing the ‘one-China principle’. Myanmar’s President U Win Myint during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in January 2020, states Myanmar’s firm adherence to the One China principle, respects the “one country, two systems” policy China has implemented in Hong Kong and Macao and has always recognized Taiwan as an inalienable part of China’s territory. 

Myanmar is also one of the 53 countries that supported the Hong Kong National Security Law.

China’s multifaceted engagement in Myanmar

The question arises can Myanmar altogether keep China aside, especially from its peace process? As China’s border is at the stake, China is pretty much invested in Myanmar’s peace process. In the third Union Peace Conference, China played important role in pressurizing ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) to attend the peace conference. For China’s interest, the member of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FNPCC) includes the Northern Alliance EAOs, which are known for attacking commercial interests in northern Shan State and Kachin state that shares a border with China. China-funded the EAOs to attend the conference, which was the first time all the ethnic groups attended it with Chinese aid and diplomacy. Thus, Myanmar can’t shun Chinese help when it comes to the peace process. As of August 2020, the fourth Union peace conference marked the absence of many of the ethnic groups as due to COVID and other factors China was not seen pushing much for their inclusion. Yun Sun noted that the reason could be the absence of any specific request of the Myanmar government to China regarding the same. 

Apart from, engagement with the peace process and supporting Myanmar at the international front regarding the Rohingya crisis, and mediating between Bangladesh and Myanmar, China seem to have a resilient network approach towards Myanmar. This has led China to engage different actors in its diplomacy towards Myanmar. Chinese government NGOs (GONGO)’s such as the China International Poverty Alleviation Foundation (CIPAF), Blue Sky are becoming more present in Myanmar. These GONGO’s are not only providing humanitarian aid but also organizing skill development programs for locals. The Chinese government also sometimes organizes training programs for Myanmar’s diplomats and officials and businessman. Hence, China is more engaging at the grassroots level, a diplomatic style China has adopted from its experience of engagement in unstable states in Africa. 

Thus, as for now, it is both a win-win game for China and Myanmar, as both seem to seek leverages from each other. However, it would interesting to see if more international actors, especially the US lifts the ban on Myanmar and get engage with the country how Myanmar would design its policies towards China. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author.

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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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