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China’s Economic Diplomacy Amid Multipolar Disorder

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More often than not, China is billed as the driver of post-pandemic global growth and recovery. This claim is not entirely groundless. In addition to combating the pandemic quite successfully, China demonstrated 18.3% GDP growth by the end of the first quarter of 2021, as compared to the first quarter of 2020. Given the current circumstances, there are now concerns that China will have no serious alternatives when it comes to international economic cooperation. For many countries, this situation is fraught with increased dependence on China.

Yet, strong economic indicators do not replace the need for regenerating China’s economy after the shocks it has suffered. This is especially so, as the cases of India and some other nations demonstrate that spontaneous outbreaks of the epidemic are still within the realm of possibility and could result in a shortage of vaccines around the world. At the same time, Beijing is facing growing competition with the U.S. as well as unprecedented external pressure exerted by the West.

All these factors taken together raise more and more questions about the trajectory along which the post-COVID world will develop and about China’s global leadership.

Ping-pong diplomacy: a new interpretation

April marked the 50th anniversary of ping-pong diplomacy. Official representatives of China and the U.S. discussed its pivotal role in establishing and fostering bilateral contacts. The parties have come a long way since then—they do not shy away from calling each other ‘principal threats’, with this wording extending to official documents, while the intensity of mutual sanctions exchanges and accusations is, indeed, quite often reminiscent of a ping-pong game.

So far, this looks like a rigged friendly game: no one is really trying to deliver a blow the other could not parry. Nonetheless, as the game progresses, it becomes increasingly appealing, and the political rhetoric of both parties is taking on new colors. The March meeting in Anchorage where the parties exchanged mutual accusations holds a special place in this game.

The parties escaped the confinements of rhetorical displays long ago, as political realities and concomitant practices are changing, too. Last year, China outstripped Russia to come second on the list of states with the highest number of U.S. sanctions imposed against them, while the U.S. is still the principal initiator of such sanctions.

Even more impressive is that military spending is growing amid the global recession. According to SIPRI, it totaled $2 trillion in 2020. Adjusted for the fact that some states (Chile, South Korea) did re-allocate their military spending to other areas, the trend, even if not ubiquitous, will apparently persist. For instance, this dynamic will be relevant for the Asia Pacific. In 2021, China’s military spending grew by 6.8% over last year, reaching $209 bn. South Korea’s military budget increased by 5.4% as compared to last year, reaching $48 bn. Even Japan joined the trend by setting a record in the last few years and allocating about $52 bn to military spending in 2021.

With that in mind, mutual tensions have spread throughout the international relations system. On 6 May, China suspended its strategic economic dialogue with Australia. Earlier, on 22 April, Australia cancelled two deals (between China and the state of Victoria) concluded as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Plans called for cancelling four such deals as being, according to Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne, “inconsistent with Australia’s foreign policy.” New Zealand tends to draw similar conclusions.

Differences in the European area are no less stark, while China sometimes employs an asymmetrically harsh strategy: in late March, in response to four XUAR officials being declared persona non grata, China imposed sanctions on ten Europeans and four organizations. At times, awkwardness emerges even in China’s bilateral relations with those who readily cooperate with China. For instance, there are reports of Chinese hacker attacks on Russia’s Rubin Central Design Bureau of Marine Engineering, which designs submarines for Russia’s Navy.

These facts make the reports from the Boao Forum for Asia held on April 18–21 all the more surprising. The 20th anniversary economic forum became the biggest in-person conference since the pandemic broke out. Official reports suggest that over 4,000 people from more than 60 states and over 160 organizations from 18 states and regions registered for in-person attendance.

The Forum’s sidelines offer an excellent perspective on a world where Asia is reviving after the pandemic. In global terms, the GDP by PPP share of Asian states amounts to 47.3%, having grown by 0.9 per cent as compared to 2019. In 2020, Asian states demonstrated a 1.3 per cent rise, which is 3 per cent higher than the global average. FDI demonstrated a far more significant difference: while it totaled $476 bn in Asia, with a mere 4% drop, the global average saw a drop of 42%. The Forum emphasized Asia’s role in regional integration (in particular, the RCEP), while the Belt and Road Initiative received its traditional share of attention.

Other sources also report favorable trends. According to VEB reports, ASEAN nations are still China’s main trading partners. In the first quarter of 2021, trade with ASEAN totaled $191.4 bn (a growth of about 35.3%), with Vietnam accounting for the bulk of that amount. The IMF expects Asia to showcase the highest economy recovery rate (adjusted for last year’s low base and the overall level of economic development).

Elevated rhetoric is typical of such formats and is certainly not something unprecedented. Yet, the fact that the biggest in-person forum since the pandemic broke out was held in Asia is noteworthy. This once again underscores that Asian states coped best with the coronavirus pandemic, both in terms of countering COVID-19 and relieving its socioeconomic consequences. Nonetheless, such positive rhetoric—coupled with other aggressive phenomena of the international environment—shows that not only has the common misfortune fail to rally the post-COVID world under a single banner but has, on the contrary, served to fragment it further: the world is now highly polarized and extremely heterogeneous.

Features of China’s post-COVID economic diplomacy

Given China’s much more successful recovery after the pandemic, new avenues lie before it. For instance, China became the EU’s biggest economic partner last year, overtaking the U.S. The number of freight trains travelling between the EU and China topped 12,400 last year, which is 50% more than in 2019 and seven times more than in 2016.

China achieved marked results in its cooperation with Latin American and African nations. In 2005–2020, China’s investment and construction contracts in Latin America totaled some $183 bn. Over the same period, China invested about $303 bn in Sub-Saharan Africa, with another $197 bn in the MENA nations.

At the same, we should remember that China’s successes and bright prospects come packaged with a number of long-standing, yet unresolved issues as well as new challenges. For instance, as of June 2020, the debt owed to China by several African states was reported to be over 25% of their total foreign debt (Angola, the Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Cameroon, Ethiopia and Zambia are on such a list). At the same time, China has improved the capabilities of its military base in Djibouti, now capable of receiving aircraft carriers. Such results are directly connected with China’s increased economic presence on the continent.

The same features are largely typical of Asian nations. Huge debates surround the policies pursued by Rodrigo Duterte, who is frequently criticized for his concessions to China (often in exchange for promised investment). Recently, the president of the Philippines was harshly criticized for giving China control over fishing areas in the South China Sea. His policy towards China is contrasted with that of Indonesia’s leader Joko Widodo and his more prudent balancing between the U.S. and China without “kowtowing.”[1] Indonesia was thus able to come to more favorable cooperation terms (for instance, the country received vaccines from China).

Chinese workforce and technologies remain a separate issue when it comes to implementing joint projects. Environmental standards and co-related issues often come up. For instance, protests against China’s growing presence in Central Asian states are not infrequent: over the last two years, there were at least 40 such protests.

Besides, port-related scandals frequently erupt in connection with China, evoking discussion particularly with respect to Pakistan and Myanmar. Certainly, the hottest topic here is Hambantota port that Sri Lanka leases to China. There are regular talks of Sri Lanka being in the “debt trap,” while the country’s officials deny this, claiming that the country will “never be an unsinkable aircraft carrier posing a threat to anyone else.” Additionally, the “debt trap” is often interpreted as part of a more systemic crisis: in Sri Lanka’s case, its causes include the “twin deficits”—trade deficit and budget deficit.

China’s approach to India is a special case in point. Back in the summer, when the border conflict broke out, China responded in a rather restrained manner to the sanctions imposed on it. During the current coronavirus wave rampant in India, Beijing has officially voiced support for New Delhi and offered its vaccines supplies. Nonetheless, the recent incident of a Chinese diplomat comparing China’s outer space successes and India’s funeral pyres has prompted a violent reaction. Although this post has been deleted, the incident produced a powerful impression. This is far from the first instance of China being accused of using the pandemic to bolster its global leadership.

The ambivalence of China’s stance is also visible in international institutions. On the one hand, China has greatly benefited from the liberal global order; on the other hand, China regularly stresses the privileges spawned by this order for the West and the injustices when it comes to the Global South.

In spite of this, China remains part of various international regimes, both as the donor and the recipient of benefits. Information surfaced in March of BRICS’s New Development Bank giving China a loan of $1 bn for economic recovery. The RCEP is expected to assist China in implementing the “Made in China 2025” strategy and ensure access for Chinese companies to building supply chains. Additionally, at every multilateral venue, China stresses the need for joint action in combating the COVID-19 pandemic, thereby boosting its international image (in particular, Xi Jinping spoke about this at the G20 Summit in November 2020).

Economic and financial institutions with Chinese participation continue to expand. The review of the AIIB’s five years of operation presented in July last year suggests that the number of founding members has nearly doubled from 2016 to 2020, from 57 to 103; 87 projects were supported in this period and $19.6 bn invested.

From the standpoint of political discourse, we notice a major difference in China’s conduct at international venues and in its bilateral dialogues. Nonetheless, this has had little influence on Beijing’s policies in international bodies, which remain fairly pragmatic. Currently, China is the UN’s second-biggest sponsor following the U.S. and ittakes advantage of UN institutions to promote the Belt and Road Initiative. As of last April, 15 Chinese nationals headed various UN bodies.

At the same time, we have to acknowledge that Chinese initiatives have been put to a major test during the pandemic. In last June, Wang Xiaolong, head of the International Economic Department at China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, said that the pandemic had seriously affected 20 per cent of the Belt and Road Initiative projects and had a negative impact on another 30 to 40 per cent. Even though the Belt and Road Initiative is still actively promoted, the pandemic will most likely make its own adjustments to China’s investment projects. In particular, forecasts suggest falling investment in extractable resources and some infrastructure projects; greater attention may be focused on projects with a short payback period.

Wolves at our door?

Given the growing external pressure, claims of Chinese expansion and threat persist with varying intensity around the world. Beijing seeks to neutralize them, largely by replacing one idea with another. Yet the practice of combating concepts with other concepts (for instance, replacing “peaceful rise” with “peaceful development,” the “Chinese dream,” the “community of common destiny,” etc.) has apparently not produced the desired result so far.

This is the background that particularly focuses on the new style of the Chinese diplomatic language, which is getting progressively ruder. China’s foreign policy is often termed “wolf warrior diplomacy,” and its practices are expected to become increasingly aggressive. Media have noted that Chinese diplomats went to the trouble of “digging through a dictionary of French swear words” before calling the head of a French foundation a “petty canaille.”

In the heat of playing ping-pong, it is easy to forget it is just a game. It seems like a real battle as it plays out, and the victory appears crucial. When one concentrates on playing, it is hard to reflect and ponder awkward questions. Do we lose important long-term benefits in such a game? Is it really impossible not to play or to choose a different game even if a partner challenges you?

Not to excuse such conduct, but just by way of an observation, it would be fair to say that such a “stylistic simplification” has, in fact, become part and parcel not only of China’s diplomatic language: the same trend can be found in Russian and American official statements (more about this can be found here).

Additionally, it often turns out that inappropriate statements are individual initiatives rather than malicious intents sanctioned by the Communist regime. Excuses for using harsh rhetoric can be found in China’s domestic political demand prompted by China’s growing nationalism and the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to legitimize its authority.

Today, China is still trying out its new global status: it continues to promote the value of international cooperation at various international venues, introduce regional trade agreements, set up new global value chains amid the new circumstances. The devices used to work with countries as part of the Belt and Road initiative and other Chinese formats for cooperation are pragmatically the same, just as before. Moreover, China is not original even in manifestations of its most extreme policy actions: a similar response to sanctions and boycotts was seen in various periods of its modern (and not only modern) history.

Yet, quantity is often known to transform into quality, and this applies to China in particular. We should not underestimate the current transformations. In 2017, for instance, analysts noted that China’s flagship concept of a “community of common destiny” was for the first time officially included in a UN resolution. During the pandemic, the Belt and Road Initiative took on a new dimension as it was augmented with the notion of a “Health Silk Road.” Besides, it is no secret that a cumulative effect often results in common political practices being institutionalized—China’s Ministry of Commerce officially included sanctions into its scope of activities in September, 2020.

The “warrior wolf” diplomacy often looks like overreaction (the events and China’s response are incomparable in significance), and it hurts economic interests more often than not. Summing up, we can say that China’s strategy as a grand concept has long taken shape and is consistently implemented, although quite emotionally. China thinks in categories that entail mandatory accounting for national (domestic) interests. Most likely, China will continue this policy adjusted for the consequences of the pandemic and for episodes of irrational behavior by international actors. Experience shows that one can and should negotiate with China, no matter how harsh the talks might seem. What ultimately matters in ping-pong is not just reaction time and unpredictability, but also nerves of steel.

 [1]“Kowtowing” is the traditional Chinese ritual of genuflecting before the emperor. Figuratively, it is sometimes used to refer to “vassal” relations between China and its economic partners, similar to the “tribute system” of ancient China.

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International Relations Amid the Pandemic

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We could rest assured that COVID-19 will be defeated, sooner rather than later. The excessive angst and fear we currently feel will gradually subside, while our science will find effective antidotes so that people could look back on the pandemic years as a ghastly dream.

At the same time, it is also clear that a post-pandemic world will be quite different to the world we knew before. The argument that the world needs a massive shake-up to move to the next stage of its development has been quite popular ever since the end of the Cold War. Some prophesied that this would come as a result of a profound economic crisis, while others argued that a large-scale war may well be on the cards. As often happens, though, what turned the world on its head came as if out of nowhere. Within a short span of just a few months, the COVID-19 pandemic shed a light on all the many contradictions and setbacks of our age. It went on to outline the trajectory for economic prosperity, scientific breakthroughs and technological advancements going forward, opening up new opportunities for self-realization and fulfilment. The question pertinent today is: Who will be able to best exploit the new reality and take advantage of the opportunities that are opening up? And how?

COVID-19 has also left its mark on the current architecture of international relations.

At the turn of the century, it was mired in crisis. The end of the Cold War towards the late 20th century effectively signaled the beginning of the transition from the bipolar world order established in the wake of the Second World War to a model that had yet to be created. A bitter struggle would unfold as to what the new world order had to be, with the issue still unsettled today. A number of states, as well as non-state actors, willing to take advantage of this uncertainty in global affairs and redistribute the spheres of influence in the world is what it ultimately boils down to. In a sense, such a scenario should have come as no surprise since the contradictions between the profound changes encompassing the public domain and the rigid model of international relations established in the mid-20th century by the powers victorious in the Second World War had continued to grow in recent decades.

The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be a stern and unprecedented test of strength that has revealed the limits of the current architecture of international relations. Previous crises—be they financial turmoil, struggle against terrorism, regional conflicts or something else—were, in fact, temporary and rather limited in their implications, however severe they were. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected each and every country in the world, regardless of their political regimes and social conventions, economic prosperity and military might. The pandemic has exposed the fragility of the modern world as well as the growing risks and challenges; and if ignored, they could plunge the world into a descending spiral of self-destruction.

The pandemic continues, which means we are yet to draw a final conclusion on its consequences for the system of international relations. That being said, a number of tentative conclusions are already taking shape.

Point 1. Globalization, despite its obvious side effects, has already changed the face of our world, irreversibly making it truly interdependent. This has been said before; however, the opponents of globalization have tried—and continue to try—to downplay its consequences for modern society. As it happens, they would like to think of globalization as little more than an episode in international life. Although it has been going on for quite some time now, it is nevertheless incapable of changing the familiar landscape of the world. The pandemic has lifted the curtain on what the modern world truly looks like. Here, state borders are nothing more than an administrative and bureaucratic construct as they are powerless to prevent active communication among people, whether spiritual, scientific, informational or of any other kind. Likewise, official borders are not an obstacle to the modern security threats proliferating among states. The waves of COVID-19 have wreaked havoc on all countries. No nation has been able to escape this fate. The same will also happen time and again with other challenges unless we recognize this obvious reality to start thinking about how states should act amid the new circumstances.

Point 2. The international system withstood the initial onslaught in spite of the incessant fearmongers prophesying its impending collapse. Following a rather brief period of confusion and helplessness, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, G20 and other global and regional organizations got their act together (albeit some better than others), taking urgent action to contain the pandemic. This proves that the system of international relations that was constructed after the Second World War still functions, although it is far from perfect or devoid of shortcomings.

In a similar vein, the fight against the pandemic has demonstrated that many international structures are increasingly out of step with the modern reality, proving incapable of mobilizing quickly enough to make a difference in our ever-changing world. This, once again, pushes to the fore the issue of a reformed United Nations system (and other international institutions), while the issue is progressively getting even more urgent. Moving forward, the international community will likely have to face challenges no less dangerous than the current pandemic. We have to be prepared for this.

Point 3. As the role of international institutions in global affairs weakens, centrifugal tendencies gain momentum, with countries—for the most part, global leaders—starting to put their national interests first. The global information war surrounding various anti-COVID-19 vaccines is a prime example of this. Not only has it seriously upset successes in the fight against the pandemic, but it has also added a new dimension to mutual distrust and rivalry. The world has effectively fallen back to the “rules” of the Cold War era, when countries with different socio-political systems were desperate to prove their superiority, with little regard for common interests such as security and development.

Pursuing such a policy today is fraught with grave consequences for every nation, since new security threats care little for borders. The recent events in Afghanistan should serve as a lesson for us all, showing that any serious regional crisis, even in a most remote corner of the world, will inevitably have global implications. Therefore, we are all facing a stark choice: either unite against these new challenges or become hostage to the various extremists and adventurers.

Point 4. Some political leaders have been quick to use the challenges of the pandemic as a pretext to strengthen the role of the state at the expense of fundamental democratic principles and binding international obligations. This may be justified or even necessitated at a time of the most acute phases of a severe crisis, when all available resources need to be mobilized to repel the threat.

However, one gets the impression that some politicians are increasingly in the groove for these extended powers and would very much like to hold onto them, using the likelihood of new crises as a justification. This line of thinking could prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to a new model of international relations to be established in accordance with the modern reality, where states would be expected to pool their efforts in the interests of global security and development.

Point 5. As always happens in times of profound crises, the international community is looking to major powers and their leadership for guidance. The future course of history in all realms of life, naturally including international relations, will hinge on what these countries choose to do, deciding whether solidarity prevails over national egoism. President Putin’s initiative to hold a meeting of the heads of state of the permanent UN Security Council members could be a good starting point to foster understanding and seek new ways of moving forward. We cannot keep putting off a frank and thorough conversation about the future world order, as the costs of new delays could be too grave for everyone to handle.

From our partner RIAC

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Relevance of the Soft Power in Modern World

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In modern days, the relevance of Soft Power has increased manifolds. At times, the COIVD-19 has hooked the whole human race; this concept has further come into the limelight. The term, Soft Power was coined by the American Scientist Joseph Nye. Soft Power is the ability of a country to get what it wants through attraction rather than coercion. By tapping the tool of Soft Power, a country can earn respect and elevate its global position. Hard Power cannot be exercised exceeding a territory, and if any country follows this suit, its image is tarnished globally. However, it is Soft Power that can boost the perception and create a niche of a nation. Soft Power is regarded as the essential factor of the overall strength of a country. It can increase the adhesion and the determination of the people in a realm to shape the foreign relations of any nation. Nye held that the Soft Power arsenal would include culture, political values, and foreign policy.

After the Cold War, many nations pumped billions of dollars into Soft Power initiatives, and the US mastered this concept. The US has sailed on the waters of Soft Power by harnessing the tool of media, politics, and economic aid. The US boasts globally recognized brands and companies, Hollywood, and its quest for democratic evangelization. Through movies, the US has disseminated its culture worldwide. American movies are viewed by a massive audience worldwide. The promotion of the US culture through films is a phenomenon (culture imperialism) where the US subtly wants to dominate the world by spreading its culture. Through Hollywood films, the US has an aspiration to influence the world by using Soft Power tools. Hollywood is considered as the pioneer of fashion, and people across the globe imitate and adopt things from Hollywood to their daily life. Such cultural export lure foreign nations to fantasize about the US as a pillar of Soft Power. Educational exchange programs, earthquake relief in Japan and Haiti, famine relief in Africa stand as the best example of the US initiatives of Soft Power. Now, the American political and cultural appeal is so extensive that the majority of international institutions reflect US interests. The US, however, witnessed a drop from 1st place to 6th on the Global Soft Power Index. This wane can be attributed to the attack on the US Capitol Hill sparked by former US President Donald Trump. In addition, his dubious decisions also hold responsibilities that curtailed the US soft power image, that is, particularly the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement.

Beijing is leaving no stone unturned to ace this area. China, rich in culture and traditional philosophy, boasts abundant sources of Soft Power. China is contemplating and exploring an innovative strategy in its rise in international politics. There have been notable elements in the Chinese diplomatic practice, including softer rhetoric, promotion of its culture abroad, economic diplomacy, and image building. Beijing, amid an ongoing pandemic, has extended vaccine help to 80 countries. Such initiative taken by China has elevated its worth globally during difficult times of the pandemic. According to the Global Soft Power index 2021, China stands in the 8th slot. China is an old civilization with a rich culture. China has stressed culture as a crucial source of Soft Power. In a bid to enhance its cultural dominance, Beijing has built many Confucius Institutes overseas. However, this has not been whole-heartedly embraced by the Chinese neighbors due to territorial disputes on the South China Sea. Moreover, International Order, dominated by the West, is wary of Beijing. China’s authoritarian political system is not welcomed in Western democracies. Therefore, China finds it hard to generate Soft Power in democracies. In recent times, Beijing has witnessed tremendous extension in its economy; thus, it focuses on harnessing economic tools to advance its Soft Power. Consequently, Beijing has driven its focus on geoeconomics to accelerate its Soft Power.

Unfortunately, Pakistan, in this sphere, finds itself in a very infirm position -securing 63rd position in the Global Soft Power Index. In comparison with Pakistan, India boasts a lot of Soft Power by achieving the 36th position in the Global Soft Power Index. Its movies, yoga, and classical and popular dance and music have uplifted the Indian soft image. In the promotion of the Indian Soft Power Image, Bollywood plays a leading role and it stretches beyond India. Bollywood has been projected as a great Soft Power tool for India. Bollywood stars are admired globally. For instance, Shahrukh Khan, known as Baadshah of Bollywood, has a fan following across the world. Through its Cinema, India has attracted the attention of the world. Indian movies have recognition in the world and helped India earn billions of dollars. However, the Modi government has curtailed the freedom of Bollywood. Filmmakers claim that their movies are victim of censorship. Moreover, the anti-Muslim narrative has triggered in India, which has tarnished the Indian image of secular country and eventually splashing the Indian Soft image. Protests of farmers, revocation of article 370 in Kashmir, and the controversial Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) have degraded the Indian Soft Power.

Pakistan is not in the tier of the countries acing the Soft Power notion. In Pakistan, expressions of Soft Power, like spiritualism, tourism, cinema, literature, cricket, and handicrafts, are untapped. Pakistan is on the list of those countries having immense tourism potential and its culture is its strength. Unfortunately, no concrete steps are taken to promote the Pakistani culture and tourism. The Pakistani movies are stuck in advancing Pakistan’s narrative worldwide due to lack of the interest of successive governments in this sphere. In addition, these movies lack suitable content, that’s why people prefer watching Bollywood or Hollywood movies. It is the job of the government to harness the expressions of Soft Power. Through movies and soap operas, we can disseminate our culture, push our narrative, and promote our tourism. Government-sponsored campaigns on electronic media can help greatly in this sphere. Apart from the role of government, this necessitates the involvement of all stakeholders, including artists, entrepreneurs, academics, policymakers, and civil society.

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Planetary Drought of Leadership

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The Tokyo Olympic Games, just concluded, were a spectacular success and grateful thanks are owed to our Japanese hosts to make this event so, at a time when we were in the middle of a global pandemic. There were many doubts expressed beforehand by many people over the Games going ahead during the pandemic, but the precautionary measures put in place were well handled and not obtrusive. 

For anyone who had the opportunity to watch the Games via TV they must have been struck by the wonderful sportsmanship and friendship shown by the competitors of all nations taking part, whatever race and ethnicity. It prompted me to think and ask why the countries of the world cannot exercise some of the same degree of friendship when dealing with one another rather than push forward with agendas that are antagonistic. The world holds a number of dysfunctional states as well as oppressive dictatorships where the resident population is subjected to mental as well as physical torture. Belarus is a typical example, where the leader of the country stole the election to give himself yet another term, and quashes any dissent, with some paying the ultimate price. He has the arrogance to divert a commercial flight so that he can arrest someone who opposes him and then beats him up, before parading him in front of the cameras to say an apology, which everyone can see was forced out of him. 

The Middle East is a complex problem and has been for centuries, the home of some of the oldest civilisations and the divergent monotheistic religions, which add a complicating factor. It surprisingly has been relatively quiet for the last period. Until the next flare up.

Myanmar has also been quiet, or so it seems. The military patrols across the country, particularly in states that offer some resistance and tough guerrilla opposition. The military behave badly, continuing the practice of killing, rape and pillage if not total destruction of small communities which cannot offer any resistance. Corruption is thriving. The military government have ‘promised’ fresh elections next February, 6 months hence, but it is most unlikely that these will be ‘fair and free’. The troubled conditions will continue. It will be an issue of continuing concern for ASEAN and more widely. A recent visit for a documentary had to be carried out illegally in case the military had discovered that the local people had been welcoming and helpful. The repercussions would have been appalling.

The latest situation that has arisen is the Afghanistan blitz takeover by the Taliban, a medieval group promoting the fundamental sharia doctrine, which is out of date and treats women as ‘non-persons’. They have also harboured terrorists, one group pulling off the infamous 2001, 9/11 strike on the NY Twin Towers, which awakened the US to take strong retaliatory action in Afghanistan, and forcing the Taliban out for 20 years. Their 5-year, 1996-2001, rule of Afghanistan was brought to a close after the NY happening, when the US with Allied forces took charge and ousted them. 

But now the Taliban are back following a direct meeting with the then president Trump in 2017, no Afghan government present, and they saw him coming! Shades of North Korea. He said he would withdraw completely without proper assurances, leaving the country’s development less than half finished. President Joseph Biden completed the task of withdrawal, somewhat hasty, upsetting nearly all Americans in the process. The British were caught flat-footed and there is considerable anger expressed by MPs, not least because they realise that they no longer have the ability to resolve such issues themselves. They feel embarrassed and rightly so.

As one of the Afghan luminaries and most quoted intellectuals, prof. Djawed Sangdel, reminds us: “Afghanistan is a graveyard of empires. Even Alexander the Macedonian realised – 2,300 years ago – ‘it is easy to enter the country, but lethal when exiting it’. This especially if you do not respect domestic realities.” Indeed, the situation on the ground is chaotic.

The leader, Ashraf Ghani, of the weak ‘legal’ government has fled, not without rumours about bags full of cash, and that is one reason that the country has not progressed as well as it should, endemic corruption. Women, quite rightly, are fearful, as to what lies in store, as the Taliban’s record on treatment of them is brutal. They have promised to give emancipation within sharia law – which in their case was the combination of twisted and oversimplified Islamic teachings with the tribal nomadic pre-Islamic culture of the central Asian hights.

Looking at the country as a whole, one worries about its future; the Taliban have no track record of governing a country, particularly not one as complex as Afghanistan. They would have to greatly modify their approach to life, separate religion from state (affairs). However, there are credible doubts; once more the Northern Alliance will get together and the country will lapse into civil war. Will the Chinese see an opportunity and risk what others have failed to do? My heart goes out to the people of Afghanistan.

In reviewing the past few decades, it would seem that western led democracies, when they have engaged with a country, which is in trouble, have only entered it without full humanitarian understanding of the problems and not sought a proper sustainable solution. Inevitably it takes longer than one thinks, and there are not strong enough safeguards put in to avoid financial losses to development projects, sometimes major.

The UN has a major part to play, but one must ask if today’s remit is fit for purpose, or should they be reviewed, and the countries that make up the UN should look at and ask themselves if they are fair in what they give and expect, not just monetarily.

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