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East Asia

How China Exacerbates Global Fragility and What Can be Done to Bolster Democratic Resilience to Confront It

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Authors: Caitlin Dearing Scott and Isabella Mekker

From its declared policy of noninterference and personnel contributions to United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping Missions to its purported role in mediating conflicts, China has long sought to portray itself as a responsible global leader, pushing narratives about building a “community of common destiny” and promoting its model of governance and economic and political development as a path to stability. This narrative belies the reality. Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-style “stability,” whether to protect Belt and Road Investments (BRI) or regimes with favorable policies towards China, in practice facilitates authoritarianism and human rights violations, contributes to environmental degradation and corruption, and undermines democratic governance, all of which can fuel instability, intentionally or otherwise.

In pursuit of its true goal – “a world safe for the party” – China has leveraged its diplomatic and economic power to weaken  the international human rights system, bolstering support for illiberal regimes, contributing to democratic decline and exacerbating global fragility in the process. Nowhere is this more apparent than in conflict-affected contexts.

Conflict Resolution, CCP Style

Although China brands itself as a ‘promoter of stability, peace, and unity’, its very definition of stability is built on its authoritarian model of governance. This, plus its concerns about non-interference in its own domestic issues, informs its conflict resolution approach, which emphasizes host state consent and political settlement, two-ideas that can be laudable in theory, depending on the context. In practice, however, China’s conflict mediation efforts in some instances have provided support to incumbent regimes who are perpetuating violence and conflict, promoting a  ‘stability’ that disregards the voices of vulnerable populations and the need for inclusive governance. In the case of the Syrian civil war, China’s “political solution” meant maintaining China-friendly Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power, while blocking resolutions condemning the regime’s brutality against its citizens. 

“Stability” promoted by China can also come at the expense of human rights. China (and Russia) have previously pushed for cuts to human rights positions within peacekeeping missions, endangering the capacity of these missions to protect civilians in conflict.  In Myanmar, where the military is committing unprecedented human rights violations against its own citizens, China initially blocked a UN Security Council statement condemning the military coup and other international efforts to restore stability at a time when a strong international response was much needed. This was in line with China’s previous engagement in the country, working closely with the military regime to “mediate” conflict near the Chinese border in a way that preserved China’s interests and influence, but did little to actually address conflict. After a growing humanitarian crisis began to threaten its investments on the Myanmar side of the border, however, China changed rhetorical course, showing where human rights violations stand in its hierarchy of stability.

Advancing China’s Interests, Undermining Governance

China’s policies in fragile states mirror its unstated preference for expanding its economic and political interests, even if securing them sidelines the stated imperative of addressing fragility. In some instances, China has lobbied for UN policies in conflict-affected contexts that appear to support its own agenda rather than – or sometimes at the expense of – peace. According to the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission’s 2020 report to Congress, “China has shown an apparent willingness to leverage its influence in the UN peacekeeping operations system to advance its economic interests in African countries, raising the possibility that Beijing is subverting UN norms and procedures in the process.” Per the report, the most notable example of this was in 2014 when China lobbied to expand the UN Mission in South Sudan to protect oil installations of which the China National Petroleum Corporation held a 40 percent stake.

Moreover, China’s pursuit of its interests sets up countries on unstable trajectories. China’s economic investment policies and initiatives exacerbates governance deficits and increases fragility by encouraging corruption, facilitating authoritarianism and human rights violations, and contributing to environmental degradation, all key drivers of conflict. Two cases from Nigeria and Pakistan highlight the point.

In Nigeria, China’s investment projects have exacerbated corruption and fueled distrust in local government – key drivers of conflict and intercommunal violence in the country. China has exploited poor regulatory environments and worked within illegal and corrupt frameworks, often tied to armed groups and criminal networks. In one illustrative example, China state-owned timber trading companies  offered bribes to local officials to illegally harvest endangered rosewood. Members of local communities have cited feelings of exploitation by officials accepting bribes from Chinese businessmen, further stressing fragile ties between local government and citizens. Such business practices also demonstrate a blatant disregard for the environmental consequences of illegally harvesting endangered flora and fauna. Moreover, the inherently opaque nature of these projects that are tied to CCP interests makes it difficult to demand accountability.

Similarly in Pakistan, a 62-billion-dollar project known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) aimed at linking Xinjiang to the Arabian sea, has exacerbated tension in conflict-affected provinces. The project plans to build infrastructure and extract resources from several less developed regions, while overwhelmingly benefitting industrial and political hubs such as Punjab. Many provinces, including Balochistan and Sindh, have accused political elites of altering the route of the corridor in their own interests, thus further marginalizing their communities. Separatist groups have launched several attacks throughout the country, not only fueling conflict between Pakistani ethnic groups but also leading to attacks against Chinese expatriates. Recently, prominent voices from within China have called for a military intervention in Pakistan. CPEC has increased military presence throughout small villages, sparked an uptick in violent conflict along the route, and further eroded trust in local government institutions.

These cases may of course signal more opportunism and indifference by China to the impact of its engagement on stability in any given country, as opposed to an explicit attempt to undermine democratic governance (as it has done elsewhere in support of pro-China interests). Regardless of the intent, however, the impact is the same. China’s focus on political leverage and profits first and foremost undermines stability – and China likewise can benefit from instability in states with corrupt politicians interested in trading local resources for short-term political gains.

What Can be Done: Bolstering Democratic Resilience to Address Fragility and Foreign Influence

Foreign authoritarian influence has a compounding impact in conflict-affected contexts, further undermining governance structures, institutions, and processes that can mitigate or exacerbate fragility.  Good governance, on the contrary, can not only help countries prevent and manage conflict, but can also help countries address the myriad challenges associated with foreign authoritarian influence. Strong democratic institutions help societies respond positively and productively to threats both domestic and foreign.

Targeted investment in democracy in conflict-affected contexts vulnerable to foreign authoritarian influence offers an important opportunity for utilizing the Global Fragility Strategy in support of US foreign policy initiatives and advancing the Biden Administration’s policy priorities to tackle climate change, prevent authoritarian resurgence, confront corruption, and prevail in strategic competition with China.  An investment in support of democracy and good governance to address any one of these issues will reap dividends across each of these issues – engaging in conflict prevention and stabilization programming will both advance global democracy and advance US goals vis-à-vis China and other authoritarian rivals. Such investments, which must be long-term to account for the compounding impact of foreign authoritarian influence in already fragile environments, should include:

  • Supporting governments, civil society, and citizens to better understand, expose and counter foreign authoritarian influence, particularly in conflict-affected contexts where data and research efforts can be challenging. An understanding of China’s playbook is critical to countering CCP influence operations;
  • Helping independent media to investigate and expose foreign authoritarian influence and how it fuels conflict, whether through training, financial support, or other protections of the civic and information space, to raise public awareness of the impact of such engagement on conflict dynamics and promote transparency and accountability in dealings with foreign actors;  
  • Developing evidenced-based tools to prevent and mitigate foreign authoritarian influence in fragile contexts;
  • Strengthening electoral institutions, political parties, legislative bodies, and judiciaries to uproot elite capture and mitigate malign influence;
  • Leveraging diplomacy to build political will and incentives for government officials to resist foreign malign influences. Such diplomatic efforts can include increased outreach and contact with countries previously neglected by the US – but prioritized by China – and public diplomacy to both expose the CCP’s misleading narrative and advance narratives about what democracy can deliver;  and
  • Coordinating with similarly-minded donors such as the European Union, Japan, and Australia, to implement a unified approach to match the scale of Chinese investment and maximize the impact of any intervention.

Only democracy can help countries navigate the nexus of domestic and foreign threats to their stability. In the era of COVID-19, authoritarian resurgence, and climate crisis, supporting countries to develop these “resilience” fundamentals is a sound – and necessary – investment.

*Isabella Mekker is a Program Associate with IRI’s Center for Global Impact, working on countering foreign authoritarian influence and conflict prevention and stabilization programming.

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East Asia

The Global (Dis) Order Warfare: The Chinese Way

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Since the ascension of Xi Jinping, two important developments have come to dominate the global headlines. One, the so-called wolf diplomacy of China has been on the forefront of global political relations and two, there has been a huge spurt in Chinese efforts to use disinformation and espionage, as a part of its global diplomatic-strategic plans to destabilise countries who it sees as rival or a threat, in more than one ways.

Suddenly, there are instances of greater violence, instability and conflict in countries and regions that could be considered as political/economic/military rivals or likely competitors to China. In the US, FBI has reported an increase of 1300 percent in economic espionage investigations with almost 90 percent cases having a Chinese military/government background. On an average, the US has reported registering of a new counter espionage case against China, every 12 hours. A recent report suggested the operation of about 250 MMS Chinese spies in Brussels, the capital of European Union.

 In Australia that has a continuing run-in with China in recent times, there have been instances of Chinese overt/covert interference in political/economic domain. In the UK, a highest level confirmation came in from the Home Secretary Priti Patel that confirmed the MI5 report of a Chinese government agent working in the British parliament to subvert democratic process and promote Chinese interests.

In India in particular which is virtually in a state of no-peace, no-war with China for the last 21-months, following a bloody conflict at Galwan (in which 20 Indian and 44 Chinese soldiers killed, though Chinese did not accept casualties for a long time.), the situation is quite favourable to the massive Chinese interference. The Modi-led Indian government is working at a furious pace on various fronts, economic, political, diplomatic and strategic. And that is something that is not convenient to Chinese interests.

The Chinese since 1950s have been used to an Indian government, timid and submissive and more receptive to their interests than protecting national interests of India. A big example of this self-defeating, servile and pro-communist mental make-up has been the Nehru’s support to China for a permanent UNSC seat, even in 1963 after the Indo-China war in the previous year. Successive governments since then have been following the same thinking and policy in the name of ‘continuation of foreign policy’, irrespective of changes in the government.

Hence, when Doklam happened in 2017 and Indian government for a change, showed courage and stood up against the ‘self-proclaimed super power China’ to protect the territories of a friendly Bhutan, the middle kingdom got the shock of the decade. It was used to have a southern neighbour who in spite of decades of supporting terrorism in country’s north-east, supporting Pakistani terrorism, never faced China head-on. And that brought about a change in the Chinese perception and strategic calculations vis-à-vis India.

Since Doklam face-off between India and China, the latter has been playing all games with the clear objective of preventing its rise in the word order. For reasons better known to European politicians, for some years there has been no effort from their side to compete and prevent China from spreading its aggressive strategic-diplomatic policies around the world.

Its genesis could be seen in the passive Obama-led US policy of playing a second fiddle to China. No wonder, during the eight years of Obama administration, China was not only able to strengthen its politico-strategic grip over parts of Asia and Africa but came very close to attack Taiwan. Had it not been the sudden deterioration of US-China relations during the Trump era, probably the world map could have been changed so far, particularly in the south China Sea region.

The passive Obama administration allowed China to grow impressively on the trade-economic front and emerge as the manufacturing hub of the world. It also remained indecisive, letting China develop a huge trade surplus vis-à-vis the US. And the biggest flip came when is spite of being fully aware of the likely catastrophic implications and the debt-trap strategy of the Chinese showpiece Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it neither discouraged smaller nations nor took a stand against it.

India was the only country that spoke overtly against the concept and remained out of the BRI, even at the cost of antagonising China. Today, the world is witness to the debt trap that Chinese BRI has brought about for many countries like Pakistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Laos, Mongolia, Zambia, Montenegro, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and a few others. This grim economic scenario is almost certain to compel such countries to part with their political and economic sovereignty that could well be a 21st century model of Chinese imperialism.

Such explicit Indian opposition to China and its likely emergence as a political, economic and military rival, led China to create a host of internal disturbances in the country. It is interesting to see that most of the damning criticism against Indian government for the past three-four years are emanating from Indian intellectuals living in the US/Europe for decades and are overtly/covertly left-leaning.

Similarly, the journalists, intellectuals, academicians in India who criticise and abuse the government are having a leftist background, many of them have a record of visiting China in recent past. Some of the politicians, including the de facto opposition leader Rahul Gandhi is said to have had midnight meetings with Chinese Ambassador in New Delhi. The Chinese government has also provided funds to the main Indian National Congress (INC) opposition party, a few years ago. Some media reports suggested that was one of the reasons for INC’s pressure on the previous Dr Manmohan Singh and current Modi governments, to join the Chinese dominated trade block Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

The Chinese efforts to politically subvert the democratic countries has become more blatant. The recent anti-India resolutions in the British Parliament could well be seen in the context of MI5 report confirming the presence of Chinese agents in British legislature. In Australia, the reported offer by Chinese to Nick Zhao to run for Australian parliament as a Liberal Party member and recent statement of an apparent Chinese defector Wang Liqinag suggesting that Chinese agents are ‘operating with impunity in Australia’, need to be seen in this context.

And beyond all this politico-diplomatic moves, there have been credible reports of Chinese cyber-attacks on US, India, UK, Taiwan, Australia and others who it sees as rivals. India in the last one year, witnessed a 261 percent rise in Chinese cyber-attacks against military, scientific, banking, telecommunication systems.

To make matters worse, a detailed analysis of individuals occupying important positions in government/international organisations reveals that a few of them do have some or the other sort of Chinese support that has affected their actions or lack of it, vis-à-vis China. The tremendous suffering that the world and humanity have to endure due to Corona, clearly occurred due to deliberate or ineptness of Chinese government/military/scientific community. However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has failed to fix accountability for this pandemic on China.

All such development clearly points towards a Chinese strategy to create a global disorder, a state where democracies like the US, India, Australia, Japan, Europe, Taiwan will not be able to stand unitedly and make way for the ascent of the middle kingdom to the pinnacle of global political, economic and military hierarchy. 

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East Asia

Rebuilding the World Order

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Image: Alexandra Nicolae/Unsplash

Many in the West believe China’s economic ascendancy indicates that Beijing is covertly working to usher in a new world order in which the balance of power has shifted.

History shows that changes in the world order are inevitable, but they are not happening as quickly as some analysts think. For example, the rise of the US to the world’s primary geopolitical position took nearly half a century, from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. France’s rise to domination over western Europe in the 17th century was also a long and arduous process.

In these as well as many other cases from ancient and medieval times, the rise of a new power was facilitated by stagnation, gradual decline, and military confrontation among the various existing powers.
For instance, the US was already powerful in the early 20th century, but it was the infighting during the two world wars among the European powers that brought down the edifice of the Europe-led world order and opened a path for American ascendancy.

But while it is possible to identify the changing winds of the world order through various analytical methods, it is much harder to find ways to preserve an existing order. It requires a whole constellation of leaders from competing sides to grasp the severity of the threat posed by radical change and to pursue measures together to cool down tensions.

The key question that needs to be addressed is whether the West still possesses the necessary political, economic, and military tools to uphold the existing world order and not allow it to slip into chaos, as the world’s leaders mistakenly did in the first half of the 20th century.

The successful preservation of an existing world order is a rare event in history. Following the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, European leaders gathered to build a long-lasting peace. They saw that the French power, though soundly defeated under Napoleon I, needed to be accommodated within the new fabric of the European geopolitical order. This meant not only inviting French representatives to conferences, but offering military and economic cooperation as well as concessions to the French to limit their political grievances.

In other words, European diplomats had an acute understanding of post-French Revolution geopolitics and understood the need to build a long-lasting security architecture through balance of power.
But such approaches are unusual. Perhaps the shock of the bloody Napoleonic Wars, as well as the presence of such brilliant diplomats such as Metternich, Talleyrand, Castlereagh, and Alexander I, assured the success of the new order.

It is far more common that challenges to the world order lead to direct military confrontation. Failure to accommodate Germany in the early 20th century led in part to WWI, and the errant diplomacy of the Treaty of Versailles led in part to WWII. The list goes on.

China’s rise to power is another case for study. The country is poised to become a powerful player in international politics thanks to its economic rise and concurrent military development. Beijing has strategic imperatives that clash with those of the US. It needs to secure procurement of oil and gas resources, which are currently most readily available through the Strait of Malacca. In an age of US naval dominance, the Chinese imperative is to redirect its economy’s dependence, as well as its supply routes, elsewhere.

That is the central motivation behind the almost trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, which is intended to reconnect the Asia-Pacific with Europe through Russia, the Middle East, and Central Asia. At the same time, Beijing has a growing ambition to thwart US naval dominance off Chinese shores.
In view of these factors, mutual suspicion between Beijing and Washington is bound to increase over the next years and decades.

Thus, we find ourselves within a changing world order. What is interesting is what the US (or the West collectively) can do to salvage the existing order.

From the US side, a strengthening of existing US-led alliance systems with Middle Eastern and Asia-Pacific states could help to retain American influence in Eurasia. Specifically, it would enable the US to limit Russia’s, Iran’s, and possibly China’s actions in their respective neighborhoods.

Another powerful measure to solidify the existing world order would be to increase Washington’s economic footprint across Eurasia. This could be similar to the Marshall Plan, with which the US saved Europe economically and attached it to the US economy. New economic measures could be even more efficient and long-lasting in terms of strengthening Western influence across Eurasia.

But no matter what economic and military moves the US makes with regard to allies such as South Korea, Japan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others, any attempt to uphold the existing world order without China’s cooperation would be short-lived and would echo the way Germany was cast out of the Versailles negotiations, which served only to create a grievance in Berlin and prompt clandestine preparations for a new conflict. In a way, the West’s current problems with Russia can also be explained this way: Moscow was cast out of the post-Cold War order, which caused worry and a degree of revanchism among the Russian elites.

Without China’s inclusion in the world order, no feasible security conditions can be laid out. To be preserved, the world order must be adjusted to rising challenges and new opportunities. Many Western diplomats are uncomfortable dealing with China, but casting Beijing in the role of direct competitor would not solve the problem, nor would giving it large concessions, which would be too risky.
What is required is a middle road, a means of allowing China to participate in an adjusted world order in which some of its interests are secured. Only that will increase the chances for long-lasting security in Eurasia.

Pulling this off will require an incredible effort from Western and Chinese diplomats. It remains to be seen whether they will be more successful than their predecessors were in the early 20th century and other periods of history.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia today

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East Asia

The Spirit of the Olympic Games and the Rise of China

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image source: China Daily

It is fair to say that no country like China has so seriously connected its national rejuvenation to the Olympic Games for one century. It is also rare that the top leader of a major power like Chinese President Xi Jinping has paid earnest attention to the preparations for the Olympics from the very beginning in 2017. It is reported that over the five years, Xi has made five inspection tours to the sports venues. During his latest tour to the sports villages on January 4, he led his entourage to the Winter Games facilities as the opening ceremony is in one month away. During this field trip, Xi called for efforts to ensure the success of the Beijing 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in line with what China has promised for the world to host “a green, inclusive, open and corruption-free Winter Olympic Games.”

Historically speaking, China is home to a great and ancient civilization. But as a political entity in modern era, it is a newer player since it was forged after the demise of the Qing Empire in 1912. Since then, the great (and largely successful) quest of China during the following century has been committed to transforming the large country to one strong power and a respected nation-state in the world order. Coincidently, as historian William Kirby put it, the struggle for the rise of China was always linked with the rise of the modern Olympic movement and the growth of spectator sports as an international cultural scenario. To make this long history into a short story, this paper tries to explore the salient legacy of the International Olympic Games in China and its impact on the growth of Chinese nationalism during the 20th century until now.

In a review of the creation of modern China, sports have unusually played a role that has grown in dimensions. For instance, the Olympic Games have aspired the drowsy Chinese to rethink and reinforce new national identities. In 1927 when the Nationalist (KMT) elite took power in China, its early plans for the new capital city of Nanjing included an Olympic-scale stadium. Later, it sent China’s first athlete team to the Olympic Games in 1932 and 1936 for international legitimacy. But China’s inferior power and public poor health only drew international contempt and defeats. Echoing Chinese low-status of the day, Mao Zedong, who later became the leading founder of the People’s Republic of China, warned his contemporaries that “China is being drained of strength. Public interest in martial arts is flagging. The people’s health is declining with each passing day. One day our country will become even weaker if things are allowed to go unchanged for long.” Mao’s words serve us to understand that since the early 20th century, why Chinese political elite are convinced of the merits of the sports in general and the Olympic Games in particular because they would benefit public health domestically and enhance China’s image internationally.

However, it is since the foundation of the PRC that has fundamentally heralded an era of mass participation and public consumption in China as elsewhere of sporting competitions. Since the 1980s when China first participated in the Olympic Games in Los Angeles and then in Seoul, it has been involved in the IO games because sports, and the Olympics in particular, show well how nationalism and internationalism come together in China. It is self-evident that Chinese participation and interest in modern sports are largely driven by nationalism and, through taking part in world competitions, China has engaged the international community. Now Beijing is set to become the first city in the world to have hosted the summer in 2008 and soon to host the Winter Olympic Games in 2022. It is proud to say that hosting a successful Winter Olympic Games is a solemn commitment China has made to the international society. As the Olympic Games are around the corner, China’s preparation for the Games has attracted the global attention.

Now the inquiries go to what are expected for China to attain during the 2022 Olympics given that it is not only the second largest economy in the world but also a rising military power? Looking into the legacy of the Olympic Games in China and Chinese aspiration for their historical mission since the early 20th century, we can possibly suppose three results expected.

First, China aims to rebuild an image of a responsible power in light of multilateralism. With the world still battling the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis, compassion, solidarity, and friendship among nations have never been more critical. As UN head Antonio Guterres, who has accepted an invitation to attend the Beijing Winter Games, has said, “The Olympic spirit brings out humanity’s best: teamwork and solidarity plus talent and tolerance.” Echoing this call, the games organizing committee has vowed to use latest technology in Beijing’s Main Media Center which is the temporary home and office of some 3,000 journalists from more than 100 countries and regions and 12,000 broadcasters from over 200 networks. Moreover, armies of robots will help to provide a wide range of services, working as guides and doing things from those related to COVID-19 prevention and control, to food delivery and food preparation. Since the Olympic spirit of unity, friendship and peace is deeply rooted in China, sports are supposed to promote the mutual amity and respect among the athletes from diverse nations and cultures.

Second, the CPC elite aims to present a healthy and happy China to the world which has been sieged by the multiple complex challenges over the past decade. It is estimated that about 300 million Chinese will be inspired to participate in winter sports through hosting the Olympic Games. In addition, it will not only contribute substantially to the Olympic cause, but also foster domestic public engagement in sports. By hosting the summer and winter Olympic Games, Beijing and elsewhere in China will make full use of the sports venues for ordinary Chinese as they see the sports to promote the public health, to stimulate social-economic growth and to revitalize the cultural legacy of China since it has long regarded physical fitness as an essential national trait.

Third, China, both the leading elite and the led mass, has attest to the contribution of sport for sustainable economic and social development. The 2008 Olympic Games are a prime example of how the games can affect society, triggering action by the government to improve the lives of people with disabilities and protect their rights as equal members of society, along with nationwide investments in sustainable transport, public health, and renewable energy–all important legacies enjoyed by Chinese people today. Indeed, the UN Environment Program’s office in China has provided technical support and advice on the development of national policy initiatives in support of preparations for a green and sustainable Games. In this context, delivery of a Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics can be again a beacon of hope, demonstrating the value of unity, resilience and international cooperation in overcoming today’s pandemic.

In sum, this discussion on “The Olympic Games and the Rise of China” will be incomplete if it does not mention the personal ties between Chinese President Xi and the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing where they are scheduled from February 4 to 13. From bidding for the Games to the extensive preparations, he has played a leading role and vowed to present a “fantastic, extraordinary and excellent” Games to the world. An avid sports fan, Xi sees sports as a driving force for improving people’s health, an engine to stimulate social-economic growth and a showcase to project China’s cultural legacy. As a statesman, President Xi has encourage Chinese athletes to strive for excellence at the upcoming Games while vowing to deepen international cooperation for a brighter future with people of all countries: that is, harnessing the power of the Olympic spirit to promote a community of shared future for mankind.

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