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Waterworld: Moscow Betting on the South China Sea

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Troubled waters in South China Sea

The waters of the South China Sea are troubled. The latest weeks have not been that quiet in that geopolitical area. On the one side, the Spratly Islands continue to be under the spotlight, as Chinese vessels have been detected by the Philippines within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). On the other side, Manila’s coast guard has lately been engaged in a naval drill in the disputed waters. President Duterte clearly stated that he will not undermine his country’s sovereignty by withdrawing its vessels from patrolling national waters.

As tensions mount, Vietnam is not twiddling its thumbs. Lately, Hanoi has in fact been building up its own maritime militia, which patrols the area around Hainan, the Spratly and the Paracel Islands. China believes this to be a covert operation in order to spy on the Chinese military infrastructure and ships.

Russia’s stake in the wrangle

Located thousands of kilometers away, Russia may look like a full-fledged outsider of this dispute. Still waters run deep. Back in 2016, Vladimir Putin spoke of a “greater Eurasian partnership”. As the Russian Federation has been engaged in its pivot to Asia for almost ten years, links with a number of major Asian countries—both bilaterally and multilaterally through organizations (like the Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or ASEAN)—are strong and definite.

Moscow is clearly not interested in claiming any of the disputed waters, islands or reefs of the South China Sea. Still, it pursues its own stake, which is mainly linked to its economic and strategic interests.

Only by going beyond official rhetoric, one can possibly understand Russia’s goals within this geopolitical context. During the 2016 G20 Summit in China, Vladimir Putin clearly stated that any third-party interference within this quarrel would be condemned by Russia.

According to the official statements, Moscow advocates for a peaceful resolution of the dispute among the parties involved. The Russian Federation stands firm on the adherence to international law and UNCLOS, while supporting the 2002 ASEAN-China Joint Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

The latest years have been fruitful for Russia’s economic links with several Asian and South-East Asian countries. Let’s just think about its relations with the main claimants within this dispute. Moscow is the leading trade partner with Vietnam, has secured itself a close and comprehensive partnership with China and is clearly interested in deepening its ties with ASEAN countries.

As Russia is not a newborn in the energy and defense sectors, it tries to take advantage of its skills in order to get the most of it within this region, too. However, this has to do not with economic concerns only. Security matters just as well.

Between Hanoi, Manila, New Delhi and Beijing

Despite not being directly involved in the territorial dispute, Moscow still plays a double role. On the one hand, it has been pursuing a strategy of hedging within that specific regional complex. On the other hand, the disputed South China Sea must be understood within a larger systemic framework of international relations.

By using the term “hedging”, we refer to as a set of intertwining policies between engagement, integration and containment with the aim of bumping up one’s security. As different regional actors are involved, this is the strategy that Russia has so far used in order to preserve a sort of geopolitical stability.

The People’s Republic of China undoubtedly represents the most crucial player in the dispute. The latest months have confirmed how deep the comprehensive and strategic partnership between Beijing and Moscow is. Just some time ago, the two countries announced a joint project for a moon research station and increased cooperation within the joint venture Arctic LNG-2. Cooperation in the defense field has been sped up too. Not so long ago, Beijing has purchased some of Moscow’s top military technologies, such as Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 anti-missile systems.

In 2016, the two parties have carried out a joint naval drill in the waters of the contested South China Sea. This was interpreted by the international community as the expression of Russia taking the Chinese side. The same year, the Hague International Court spoke out in favor of the Philippines, ruling that the Chinese territorial claims were unfounded. This happened at a time when Russia could possibly face the same situation with Crimea, so the Russian rhetoric of external non-interference within conflicts was reiterated, as had already been the case with the Western engagement in Libya or Iraq.

Even if in Hangzhou Vladimir Putin chose to publicly express his support on China about the international ruling, Russia continues to flaunt its neutral stance. For instance, Moscow has never publicly supported China’s concept of the nine-dash line, since the Chinese concept of establishing sovereignty on account of historical rights clearly contradicts international law. Still, this may be a source of disagreement, as China does not fully recognize the same idea for what concerns Russian claims in the Arctic.

The People’s Republic of China is not the only country which collaborates with Russia in that area. Vietnam, for instance, appears to be the Russian gate to South-East Asia, both in economic and security terms. Crucial energy and economic deals have been signed between the two parties—not only within the Eurasian Economic Union.

Lukoil, Gazprom and Rosneft have been deeply involved in the development of oil and gas fields also within the disputed waters of the South China Sea, much at China’s discontent. In 2018, the Russian state oil company, Rosneft, initiated drilling in the Lan Do “Red Orchid” offshore gas field. The Chinese Foreign Ministry harshly replied by condemning this act.

The reminiscence of the Cold War has become the foundation for integration between the two countries in the defense field as well. In 2012, the entente was elevated up to the grade of a comprehensive strategic partnership. With the situation in the South China Sea worsening, Hanoi has lately been expanding its arms purchases from Russia, as it has happened with the Project 1241 corvettes. Beyond arms sales, Russia plays a major role in fostering the Vietnamese military capabilities, which are also aimed at countering any threat within the South China Sea.

The Philippines is another country with which Russia has been cooperating in the energy field. In 2019, President Duterte asked Russia to carry out offshore oil and gas exploration in what he defines the “West Philippine Sea”, namely the South China Sea, once again placing Moscow at the center of the dispute.

Countering the systemic threat

Imagining Russia’s actions in the South China Sea as mere hedging measures in order to preserve geopolitical stability in a crucial region would be a huge mistake. As the West continues to perceive Moscow and Beijing as systemic rivals, the reverse is also true.

The United States’ reorientation towards Asia under President Obama has been considered as a sort of systemic pressure on Russia. Through Moscow’s lenses, Washington is seeking to maximize its influence in the dispute and in the area by strengthening ties with its Asian partners as well as through the QUAD format. This is also shown by the U.S. willing to modernize its military bases in Okinawa and Guam. This is why Moscow would like to resist the so-called “internationalization” of the conflict, as claimed by Korolev.

Moscow has in fact been helping Hanoi in modernizing a former Cold War base at Cam Ranh Bay by supplying Kilo submarines and providing training programs. In November 2014, an agreement was signed permitting to use this naval facility by Russian military forces. This led to a quarrel with the United States, as Russian bombers were patrolling over an area too close to Guam. Russia’s interest in reestablishing a permanent presence in the South China Sea is thus also directed against the United States’ aspirations in the area and represent a real balancing strategy.

Moscow is, of course, not the only one balancing here. China fears a U.S. intervention too. Aleksander Korolev has an interesting intuition on the issue. In fact, despite Moscow’s military cooperation with Hanoi, Beijing appears to coexist with it, as it prevents Vietnam from aligning with Washington.

At the end of the day, Russia—despite its geographic location and seemingly neutral stance—does care about the South China Sea dispute and has a role in it indeed. Keeping a low profile does not necessarily mean indifference. At least, this is not the case.

From our partner RIAC

MA in Interdisciplinary Research and Studies on Eastern Europe — Political Science, University of Bologna, Coordinator at Osservatorio Russia, RIAC Intern

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Southeast Asia

Visit of Chinese Foreign Minister to Southeast Asia

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Following the visit of Kamala Harris, the vice president of the USA to Vietnam and Singapore, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi visited the two countries as well as Cambodia to engage the regional players. Vietnam has become the cynosure of major powers such as the US, Japan, and China. The visit of Japanese Defence minister and the US defence secretary happening within a period of three months. US defence secretary visited Vietnam in July 2021 while the Japanese defence minister visited Vietnam in September 2021.

Given the hyper activism which was shown by the two members of the Quad, the Chinese foreign minister sensing these strategic dynamics choose to visit Vietnam to comfort the ideological partner that China would be acting constructively. The Chinese foreign minister during the visit to the country clearly stated that Vietnam should stop entertaining extra regional powers in South China Sea and resist from complicating the situation while magnifying the maritime territorial disputes. This clearly shows that China was rattled by the very fact that US has been undertaking extra efforts in engaging Vietnam through vaccine and health diplomacy as well as creating favourable conditions for Vietnam to enhance trade relations with the US. As part of a reassurance strategy, China has committed to donating 3 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine and is willing to support Vietnam in their fight against COVID-19 pandemic.

In the last two years the Vietnam foreign ministry has been criticising Chinese manoeuvres in South China Sea and threatening legitimate activities of Vietnam in its Exclusive Economic Zone. The illegal activities undertaken by Chinese survey ships and fishermen militia in Vanguard bank, Reed Bank and Whitsun Reef were a manifestation of Chinese hyper activism. This has been criticised by the US state department as well as members of international community.

In the second leg of the visit, the Chinese foreign minister visited Singapore and had fruitful interactions with his counterpart Vivian Balakrishnan. Given the fact that Singapore is slowly emerging as a critical lynchpin in the larger Quad objectives in the region. Therefore, for China, engaging the city state is critical for securing its strategic periphery and engaging Singapore for its trade and economic interests. The proposal of development cooperation proposal by the Chinese foreign minister is to get assurance from the Southeast Asian neighbours regarding good neighbourliness and commitment to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) undertaken by the China in the maritime domain.

The Chinese foreign minister had visited almost nine countries in the last one year when Vietnam was the Chair of ASEAN. This was primarily to counter the efforts which have been made by the high-level delegations of the United States government which included the visit by the United States vice president Kamala Harris, US defence secretary, the US deputy Secretary of State and the visit of armed forces officials to the Southeast Asian countries. China’s neighbourhood diplomacy clearly shows the anxieties from the point of view of China after US has intensified surveillance and intelligence activities as the latest Malabar defence exercises(25th edition) which concluded recently near Guam. Chinese assertive activities have been operationalised by the Chinese naval ships, Chinese Coast Guard, Chinese hydrographic survey ships, and the Chinese maritime boat militia which has been threatening navies and fishermen of littoral countries in South China Sea. The military exercises undertaken by China closer to the contested waters in South China Sea, particularly in the Paracel islands, which belongs to Vietnam, and strengthening the illegal structures built on those islands is primarily aimed to counter the group sails undertaken by the US and its alliance partners as well as any concerted activity undertaken by the Quad countries.

The visit to Cambodia was expected given the fact that the politics in Cambodia is heating up because of the Hun Sen political ambitions of placing his son at the helm of power and helping Chinese to set up a full-fledged Chinese naval base at Ream naval base.  The US projects in that region has been stopped and relocated to other areas which was not liked by the US agencies.

The vaccine diplomacy which has been adopted by the Chinese foreign minister to address the deficit of vaccines in countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam is symbolic.

In this context it is also important to investigate the Japanese overtures in this regard. The Japanese have signed a defence partnership agreement with the Vietnamese which assures the exports of Japanese defence equipment to the socialist country. Under the partnership it is expected that not only arms and equipment, but also technological support and training of the technicians will be undertaken by the Japanese forces. This is the first of its kind defence partnership agreement between Japan and Vietnam showcasing the growing trust between the two countries. There have been certain writings which allude to the fact that a trilateral between India, Vietnam and Japan might be in the offing. Scholars such as Gitanjali Sinha Roy feel that Japan with its technological supremacy, and India with its large armed forces along with Vietnam’s strategic location will act as a common platform to address regional security concerns in the Indo -Pacific region. India being a regional player in the Indian Ocean region and Japan being a formidable power in the Pacific would add heft to the larger maritime security objectives.

The involvement of the European powers in the security of indo Pacific region with reference to the UK, France and Germany showcases that many players would be involved in ensuring maritime security in the region for trade and commercial aspects.

This visit of Chinese foreign minister should be seen from the point of view of reassuring Chinese commitment to the regional peace while at the same time giving a veiled warning to the neighbours that China is still a very potent power in South China Sea, and it would not allow any intervention by the extra territorial powers which tries to intervene in the South China Sea dispute. This visit clearly highlights that China has been startled by the active diplomacy undertaken by countries such as Japan and US and why keeping countries such as Singapore and Vietnam in good humour is critical for Chinese interests.

Vietnam’s ingenuity in handling diplomatic relations with the US, China and Japan and maximizing national strategic interests is appreciated. Through skilful handling of relations with these three countries, Vietnam has become a partner contributing to the peace and security of the region and affirming its central role in Southeast Asia.

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Southeast Asia

The new AUKUS partnership comes at the cost of sidelining France, a key Indo-Pacific player

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Image credit: ussc.edu.au

Here is my quick take on the new AUKUS security partnership announced on Wednesday (September 15), by the leaders of three key English-speaking countries – Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. But, the move has invited displeasure from France, a key player and partner in the Indo-Pacific with permanent presence in the region.

***

US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison – leaders of three key English-speaking countries – have announced a new trilateral security partnership in the Indo-Pacific on Wednesday, abbreviated as AUKUS. This came a week before the in-person Quad summit, aimed at deepening cooperation in a range of defence arenas such as artificial intelligence, cyber and quantum technologies and undersea capabilities. It is the latest in a series of moves taken by the Biden administration to engage proactively in the Indo-Pacific, keeping China in mind.

A key initiative of the new AUKUS partnership is to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines within the next 18 months. But, this comes at the cost of Canberra putting a halt on the ocean-class submarine development programme agreed with France known as the “Future Submarine Programme”. As Australia strengthens its age-old alliance with the United States and welcomes a deeper British presence in the region, the stakes are at an all-time high for Canberra.

The French Response

When China denounced the new trilateral partnership by referring to “Cold-War mentality and ideological prejudice”, it was expected. However, what stood out was the French response. A joint statement by the French Defence and Foreign Ministers following the announcement of AUKUS stated that it was ‘contrary to the letter and the spirit of the cooperation which prevailed between France and Australia’, and that the American choice reflects ‘an absence of coherence that France can only observe and regret’.

Australia is also a member of the Quad and the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing alliance that includes Canada and Australia as well. With AUKUS, Australian military will be closely linked with that of the United States. However, the UK has not had a permanent presence in the Indo-Pacific for decades now. On the other hand, France is the only European power currently present in the region with nearly two million of its citizens and more than 7,000 military personnel, spread across a vast maritime stretch from the Réunion Island in the Western Indian Ocean to French Polynesia and New Caledonia in the South Pacific.

In a catchy tweet, the Ambassador of France to the United States, Philippe Etienne noted,“Interestingly, exactly 240 years ago the French Navy defeated the British Navy in Chesapeake Bay, paving the way for the victory at Yorktown and the independence of the United States”.He was just reminding the Americans of their historical ties with the French that goes beyond the Statue of Liberty.

‘Global Britain’ to align with the Indo-Pacific vision

The AUKUS is specifically hurting French sentiments at multiple levels. Being a reliable partner in the region that proactively engages in a broad network of trilaterals and minilaterals involving Quad partners Japan, India, Australia and other regional players, France was much better suited than the UK to form a defence partnership, in my view, when the region needs timely action. The concept of ‘global Britain’ has made its entry into public discourse only recently. The way ahead for the re-emergence of the UK from its post-war decline seems a long one, vis-à-vis dealing with a rising China.

In contrast, the French and their military installations are already in the region. It could’ve been considered better for amplifying collective defence capability and interoperability in the region and to empower the Australian military, rather than partnering with a dormant and erstwhile regional power in Asia and the Pacific like the UK, at a time when the region faces ‘unprecedented challenges’, as noted in the French statement of response.

Washington has shared the technology of nuclear submarines only once before with the UK, almost seven decades ago. Australia’s geographic advantage and deteriorating ties with China makes it a rightful next choice. It seems the new Anglophone trilateral partnership is a systematic US-led attempt to involve the UK, particularly in a post-Brexit scenario, to play a bigger role in the Indo-Pacific.

A new addition to the regional architecture

In the context of the disruptive rise of an increasingly assertive China, it is understandable to have a variety of partnerships and minilaterals among maritime democracies that could complement the Quad and the ASEAN-led regional institutions in the Indo-Pacific. Instead of inviting the UK to the Quad itself, the Biden administration chose to form a new sister grouping in the region, perhaps with the intention of being more flexible. In the present geopolitical scenario, empowering Australia’s defence capabilities is understandably a timely move, but the choice of partners is the real issue here.

It is reasonable that not every ally or partner needs to be in every alliance or coalition, however, time-tested regional players should not be ignored in a way how the US and Australia did to France with the underlying intention of bringing the UK back into the region’s newly evolving geopolitical equation.

What Australia should be careful about?

No matter how the US chooses to hedge the situation with France, Australia should deepen its bilateral partnership with France, being a key Indo-Pacific player with permanent regional presence. The ‘2+2’ ministerial consultations between the two countries, which was inaugurated last month, needs to be built upon.

Nuclear-powered submarines could definitely boost Australia’s maritime deterrence capabilities. However, handling and operating them is a highly-complex and risky manoeuvre. So, it is important that the move should not be given the impression of being escalatory. Moreover, Australia, being a non-nuclear weapon state, should reinforce its commitment to the global non-proliferation regime and the rules-based order.

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Making sense of a rugged political terrain in the Land of Golden Pagodas

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Eight months have passed since Myanmar’s coup d’état. What are the domestic factors that contribute to the country’s grim political scenario? What are the odds that work against Burmese democracy? Here, I look back at the chequered political past of Myanmar to find answers.

***

After a decade of relative calm, the Tatmadaw, as the Burmese armed forces are referred to, smuggled power from the civilian leadership by staging a repugnant coup in February this year, led by its 65-year old-leader, General Min Aung Hlaing. This was executed just a few days before the convening of Myanmar’s newly-elected Parliament and three months after the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) landslide victory in the election held in November 2020 in the country’s second freely-contested polls since 2015.

As the junta came back to haunt the newest democratic experiment in Myanmar again, history repeats itself. Even before the coup, the Tatmadaw’s dominant posture in the administration was strongly evident, as twenty-five per cent of seats in the Parliament and key portfolios in the Cabinet were reserved for the military, according to the Constitution promulgated by the military itself in 2008.

Déjà vu 1988

Apparently, the Tatmadaw and its aging leader were outraged by the continuing and overwhelming popularity that democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi still enjoyed in the weeks following the 2020 elections, despite all the allegations of her playing second-fiddle to the Tatmadaw. The coup d’état and the subsequent crackdown on democracy set the clock back to 1988.

It was in that year, a large wave of protests erupted against the military that began as a student-led movement in the city of Rangoon (now, Yangon), which soon spread across the country. It came to be known as the ‘8-8-88 Uprising’ or the ‘People Power Movement’ because the protests peaked on 8 August 1988. Suu Kyi’s NLD party emerged from this movement.

Burma was separated from British India as a separately-administered colony eleven years before the country gained independence. The Buddhist-majority state was free of British rule in 1948 under the leadership of people like U Nu and Aung San with the hopes of ushering in a parliamentary democracy. Unfortunately, in the next fourteen years, the country would witness the very first military coup in its history since independence, in 1962, led by General U Ne Win, who would go on to rule the country with an iron fist for the next twenty-six years.

Absence of a political consensus

Right from its independence in 1948, the Land of Golden Pagodas has been a deeply divided nation along the lines of ethnicity, religion, and political loyalty, with the majority Burmans dominating the upper echelons of power. Myanmar comprises of 135 ethnic groups in total. It includes the majority Burmans, who constitute two-thirds of the population, minority groups such as the Shan, the Karen, the Rohingya, the Kachin, the Mon and other smaller groups. A grave absence of political consensus among diverse ethno-religious groups and their respective parties had always been a bane for Myanmar’s overall stability.

Myanmar’s decades-long inter-ethnic tensions and sectarian violence have been a historical factor behind the rise of popularity of the Tatmadaw among the people, who consider themselves as the only force that could bring-in stability to the country, an idea that resonates with a substantial proportion of the majority Burmans even today. But, a pro-democracy resistance movement is underway on the other side, with the military’s recent excesses leading to many of its supporters switching sides.

When the Tatmadaw was seen a beacon of stability

The Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) coalition dominated Myanmar’s political scene from 1948 to 1958. Contrary to popular beliefs today, the military was seen as a beacon of stability in the country’s immediate post-independence period as numerous sectarian groups battled each other. In the 1950s, the country had to deal with scattered left-wing insurgencies too, along with the widely prevalent ethnic conflicts.

Even as early as 1958, when the affairs of the state were slipping away, the Tatmadaw was asked by the civilian government to step in as a temporary caretaker government. The military remained loyal to the elected government for fourteen years since independence and had even facilitated the general elections of 1960.

At a moment when the military’s public support rose considerably among the people, catalysed by a corrupt civilian government led by the AFPFL, the Tatmadaw decided to take matters into their own hands by staging a coup in 1962. The junta adopted a new Constitution in 1974, suspending the one previously promulgated in 1947.

Soon, the military emerged as a repressive force and their socialist state policy known as the Burmese Way to Socialism isolated Myanmar from the rest of the world from 1962 to 1988 and devastated the economy. Around the same time, Buddhist ultra-nationalism perpetrated by fear-mongering monks also thrived under the regime at the cost of intimidation of the minority groups.

The dawn of a new epoch and the return to history

With the people realising their folly in trusting the Tatmadaw, the uprising of 1988 happened. Around the same time, young Suu Kyi returned to her home country after completing her studies abroad. Witnessing the scathing power abuse of the ruling junta hands-on, she rallied her fellow Burmese citizens for the cause of Myanmar’s democratic transition. The uprising can also be viewed as a direct consequence of the emergence of the NLD, which contested and won the elections of 1990. But, the military refused to accept the results and prevented a civilian government from exercising power.

Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest by the junta in the following year. She continued her struggle and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She was detained for fifteen years in total between 1990 and 2010. Elections were held in 2010 and the junta was ‘supposedly’ dissolved the following year, only to re-emerge in 2021.

As per estimates by the United Nations, around 230,000 people were displaced as of June this year, because of the military action and retaliatory attacks either by civilian rebels or by one armed resistance group or the other. As of July this year, more than a thousand people were allegedly killed by the junta, with thousands of protesters arrested, detained, or charged, and many even just disappeared beyond trace. Recently, the shadow resistance movement that calls itself the ‘National Unity Government’ of Myanmar had gone underground since the February coup and has called for a nation-wide ‘people’s defensive war’ against the Tatmadaw.

Regional voices and the road to peace

Myanmar is a member of the ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) since 1997. But, the organisation, despite its diplomatic efforts, was unable to prevent the coup and the subsequent civilian unrest in the country. In fact, the ASEAN’s negotiations in its capital Jakarta, in April, and the Five-Point Consensus that emerged from it have been seemingly side-lined by the junta. ASEAN envoys met with the army leaders in June and the organisation’s latest proposal for a ceasefire until the end of 2021, put forward in August-end, has been reportedly denied by the military.

Due to geo-economic and border security considerations, neighbouring China and India happen to have good ties with the Tatmadaw. However, a broad-based civilian support is the only way to ensure the army’s sustained legitimacy. And, the best solution to bring back real stability in Myanmar is to agree on a mutually-accepted power-sharing agreement between the shadow civilian leadership and the military that would secure unequivocal internal peace within the country.

Social cohesion continues to be a distant dream for Myanmar and the Burmese people, the absence of which continues to be the root cause of all political wrongs in the country. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is making the crisis worse. In the end, the military cannot afford to antagonize the United Nations and the democracies of the world for long, especially of the West, with their economic sanctions in place, and the dire curbs placed on the Burmese people’s genuine democratic aspirations will go out of the reckoning again in just a matter of time.

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