That U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris paid an official visit to Singapore and Vietnam in late August 2021 signifies clear intention of Joe Biden’s democratic administration to forge ahead with the course taken by his predecessor to build A Free and Open Indo-Pacific. According to the statement made by the second-highest political office-holder in the U.S., fostering partnership with the countries of the Indo-Pacific, including those in Southeast Asia, is Washington’s priority in foreign policy. Kamala Harris reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the international rules-based order, ensuring freedom on the seas, unimpeded commerce and advancing human rights. Although the U.S. Vice President noted that China continues to coerce and intimidate, Washington’s engagement in Southeast Asia, she argued, is not against any country, nor is it designed to make ASEAN member states choose between countries. At the same time, almost all Indo-Pacific states, either known as the so-called Quad—the United States, Japan, India and Australia—or those willing to join the initiative on a less binding basis, have already failed to escape the adverse effects of the rapidly deteriorating U.S.-China relations.
Top Secret (or maybe not)
Previously classified as secret and unintended to be publicly released before 2042, the U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific was made available in May 2021. Experts believe this to be a guarantor of continuity in the Asian dimension of Washington’s foreign policy, regardless of the party affiliation of the country’s leadership. The document provides for a tougher confrontation with China in the military and economic spheres, which may negatively be perceived by some Indo-Pacific states and complicate their relations with the United States.
The policy outlined in the document seems inconsistent, which may cause misunderstanding on the part of allies and partners, resulting in a discussion about the real priorities and intentions of the United States. For example, it is difficult to explain the differing interpretations of India’s role. In the declassified NSC document, the nation is equated with Washington’s leading partners in the region, which implies an allocation of significant assistance from the U.S. Department of State, the military and the secret services in order to enhance “India’s capacity to address continental challenges.” Meanwhile, the 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report of the U.S. Department of Defense ranked India among small and medium-sized states of Asia, which are not considered U.S. allies and are, therefore, not eligible for considerable assistance.
The ASEAN Way
Australian experts note that the deliberately declassified document reveals the need to consolidate the leading role of ASEAN in the security architecture of the region. At the same time, there is no consensus among the union’s member states regarding the essence and degree of priority of such important for the United States categories as freedom of navigation, trade and investment, respect for human rights and the rule of law. The so-called universal liberal values are of less importance to them as compared to the practical benefits coming from bilateral relations with China. According to Indonesian experts, such a divergence of views signifies apparently little sense of the specifics of Southeast Asia and regional processes on the part of analysts in Washington. They believe that the United States has not yet been able to convince the ASEAN nations of the need to create a counterbalance to Beijing as the U.S. cannot guarantee their security. As a result, the region has to face invidious choices since they find themselves at the intersection of the U.S.-China confrontation. Some countries seek to develop ties with Beijing within the Belt and Road Initiative (Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar), while others opt for equidistance (Vietnam, Singapore) or adopt a wait-and-see approach (Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia). At the same time, the latter increasingly tend to re-establish ties with the U.S. in order to benefit from American partners and put pressure on the Chinese leadership.
Among the measures on claiming superiority over China, the architects of the U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific envisage to deny the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air and sea dominance within the first island chain in a conflict (Japan, Taiwan, northern Philippines). However, this merely is a further extension of the “rebalancing” policy carried out without much success by the Obama administration. A restoration of this course is predetermined by the fact that the plans of the former U.S. President Donald Trump for the massive rearmament and more American troops to be stationed in the Indo-Pacific never received proper financial support. The doldrums seem to be rooted in the Biden administration officials being skeptical about these grand in scale military goals in the Indo-Pacific, which they believe are neither affordable nor necessary to balance China and protect U.S. interests in Asia.
The underlying theme of the National Security Council report is “the U.S. remaining the region’s dominant actor.” However, analysts believe that Washington’s fundamental interest is effectively about ensuring access of national manufacturers to the markets and resources of the region rather than maintaining U.S. hegemony there. To this end, the American authorities are invited to clearly define how they could help the states of South and Southeast Asia in resisting pressure from China. At the same time, experts rely on the Cold War experience, when the U.S. could justify its military and economic presence by the menacing spread of communism. Consequently, the notion of an authoritarian the Chinese Communist Party and the need to sever ties with communist China are gaining popularity in the American establishment.
The Pacific Deterrence Initiative and the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance provide for a change in the U.S. military presence in the Indo-Pacific, taking into account its reorientation to ensure an effective response following the loss of unconditional dominance over the PLA.
The key pillars of the revised strategy to deter China were presented by Navy Adm. Philip S. Davidson in March 2021, at that time the commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM). He believes that China’s military capabilities will enable it to upset the status quo in most of East Asia, especially in the Taiwan Strait, the East China and the South China Seas, over the next six years. In order to prevent a further erosion of the rules-based order, he suggested putting a premium on “exercises, experimentation, and innovation” within the U.S. military in the Indo-Pacific as “critical enablers to deter day-to-day, in crisis, and key to our ability to fight and win.”
The Pentagon plans to provide for the allocation of USD 4.68 billion for the force design and stronger military capabilities in 2022, with another USD 22.69 billion spanning from FY 2023 through FY 2027. One of the focus areas is the creation of forward-based joint rotational forces under the auspices of INDOPACOM that would be capable of responding to challenges that require immediate and joint solutions.
Earlier on, one of the authors of this initiative, former U.S. Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite, argued that the U.S. Navy should create a new First Fleet  that would take some load off the U.S. Third and Seventh Fleet (respectively based in San Diego and Yokosuka). According to American experts, the Seventh Fleet, overloaded with combat and training under the present conditions, is experiencing difficulties in supplies and staffing, since it is actually forced to operate in a vast area of the western Pacific and eastern Indian Oceans (from the dateline to India–Pakistan border). At the same time, the strength of the Third Fleet, whose AOR is the east and north of the Pacific, is excessive to fulfill the tasks facing it now.
Spare the Triarii
The U.S. military envisage the allies and partners of the United States to become the basis of the security system of “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” In the meantime, close attention will be paid to the compatibility of branches of the armed forces, interaction of units and formations, improving the exchange of information as well as leveling the technology of the region’s nations in the field of defense to be similar to the U.S.
The U.S. Department of Defense considers it justified to maintain an emphasis on forward deployment at foreign bases and the rotation of operational formations (mainly aircraft carrier and expeditionary strike groups), based on the specific situation. In this regard, Washington relies on India’s and Singapore’s assistance in the deployment of American units and formations as well as their logistic support. Promoting cooperation with the Maldives in this area is not ruled out either, with a defense agreement being signed in 2020. The prospects for a partial renewal of the substantive provisions of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of the Philippines, which provided for the deployment of the U.S. armed forces on its territory, look rather realistic. Earlier in February 2020, Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, announced the suspension of the Visiting Force Agreement, but his position towards the U.S. softened, given the complications in relations between the Philippines and China.
First Chain Bound
Based on the rhetoric of the U.S. military leadership representatives and the published reports, Washington must constantly demonstrate its ability to deter China, denying China actions in critical regions and deploying sufficient U.S. forces in these regions to defeat the PLA. In alignment with the situation, the Pentagon finds this possible through creating local superiority zones within the so-called first island chain, using Fleet Forces, Air Force, mobile air missile defense systems as well as high-precision short- and medium-range missiles. In addition, an integrated Indo-Pacific anti-missile and air missile defense system is designed to ensure stability for the second island chain (from the Bonin Islands through the Mariana Islands to New Guinea). The U.S. Department of Defense is planning to allocate funds to improve space detection and tracking systems for a timely response to the PLA’s unwanted activities. These actions are designed to fulfill the Pentagon’s mission to increase the lethality of the Integrated Joint Force to prevent any enemy from dominance in land, sea, air, space and cyberspace conflicts.
The plans presented by Washington are built around the futility of military operations against it within the Indo-Pacific and are coupled with high losses for any potential adversary. At the same time, the presented strategy does not provide for inevitable retaliatory measures from China. Relying on allies and partners seems controversial as well, including when it comes to the deployment of additional U.S. Armed Forces. Most Asian states would prefer to retain the benefit from furthering cooperation with Beijing and are afraid of being abandoned by Washington in the event of a serious threat to their security, with the situation in Afghanistan already serving as an illustration.
Apparently, the Biden administration, even in the face of the declared defense budget austerity, will still increase the costs to strengthen U.S. military presence in the Indo-Pacific. On the one hand, this approach reflects the intention to reach a compromise with the Republicans. On the other hand, it is aimed at putting pressure on China and persuading it to negotiate such important areas of bilateral cooperation as trade, arms control and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. This policy has already shown itself at the meeting of the U.S. and China representatives in Anchorage in March 2021 as well as at the meeting of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman with China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in July 2021.
Most likely, the United States will not give up on its attempts to establish a multilateral Quad-based security system in the Indo-Pacific in the foreseeable future. It is also planned to gradually involve other participants in this format, as evidenced by the increased contacts with Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. Taipei has a critical role to play in the U.S. strategic plans in the Indo-Pacific, while the development of military and technical, trade and economic cooperation, and the exchange of intelligence information with it deserves particular attention.
Today, Beijing is no longer going to hide its capabilities and bide its time, rather pursuing policies to advance its own security and development interests. China’s activities, not being directed against anyone, are perceived by the United States and its allies as an expansion and an attempt to crash the liberal world order, which is habitually defended by the liberal military force.
- An operational formation with AOR in the Northwest Pacific and the same name already existed from 1946 to 1973.
- The total number of warships (aircraft carrier, landing ship, cruiser, destroyer, frigate, multi-role nuclear submarine) is almost five times greater.
From our partner RIAC
Local Wisdom Brings Everybody Towards Sustainability
Climate change, carbon emission, zero waste, circular economy, and sustainability. If you are anywhere on the internet just like 62% of the world’s population, chances are you must be familiar, have understood, or at least have heard of these 21st century buzzwords. If you Google search the word ‘sustainable’, it would give you more results than if you search for ‘Titanic’, ‘globalization’, even ‘BTS’. Clearly, people all around the world has been putting more and more attention towards the concept of sustainability.
The question is, how well do we understand sustainability? What is being sustainable in development, business, and life in general entail?
Sustainability concepts were built on the foundation of protecting the resources of the Earth and the wellbeing of humankind which are negatively impacted by our abusive patterns of production and consumption. The Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in its highly-cited Brundtland Report, also called Our Common Future, formally defined sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own need. The Triple Bottom Line (TBL) first coined by John Elkington in 1994 is the fundamental concept in business to balance Profit, People, and Planet. The concept really gained its momentum when the United Nations (UN) in 2015 set out 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be adopted and achieved through global partnership by its Member States in 2030.
As a way of thinking, however, balancing wealth, society, and the environment has actually been a part of traditional belief systems, religious teachings, medieval philosophies, and communal ways of living for centuries. Indigenous people all over the world for years have developed and for the most part maintained cultural knowledge, norms, and rules that stem from the adaptation process to the environment, commonly referred to as the local wisdom. Long before the natural, organic, free-this-and-that-synthetic skincare boom, People of Bajo or the Sea Gypsies community have been harnessing the ingredients provided by Earth as their recipe to having healthy and firm skin despite being out in the sea under the sun for most of the time. They would make use of the clams’ shells or rice grain mixed with herbs like turmeric to make powder that would protect their skin from the scorching sun.
Local wisdom is also at the heart of many customary rules, including activities to manage their natural resources. For instance, many indigenous coastal communities in Eastern Indonesia implement Sasi Laut that would only allow fishing in certain areas for around two weeks to three months and close for one to two years. This local wisdom embodies the concept of marine conservation and has been passed down from generation to generation. Globally, indigenous people that constitutes less than 5% of the world’s population is protecting around 80% of the planet’s biodiversity.
Moreover, economic, environmental and social issues come in different form and intensity in different countries and communities. It might be pollution for urban area, declining water quality for tourism destination, or the non-existence of proper waste management system for rural area. Thus, achieving sustainability would require a bottom-up approach in identifying the most pressing problem in a particular country or community. The integration of local wisdom would contextualize the existing varied frameworks, concepts, tools, and innovations on sustainability to be positively perceived, better understood, and well implemented. It is the bridge to include the less represented voice, common people, and indigenous communities to be parts of climate and sustainability conversation; making sure to leave no one behind.
 Elkington, J. (1998). Cannibals with forks: The triple bottom line of 21st century business. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.
Ecosystem Restoration: The Answer to Indonesia’s Dilemma
The pressure for the Indonesian government to actively take part in climate change mitigation has been escalated lately. Since 2016, Indonesia has been a part of the Paris Agreement to join the global movement to tackle climate change and its negative impacts. First adopted at COP 21, the agreement demands committed countries to submit an updated national climate action plan, called Nationally Determined Contribution or NDC, on a five-year cycle. Hence, COP 26, which was held a couple of weeks ago in Glasgow, was the centre of attention to all activists and environmentalists to find out how each country’s progress has been mitigating climate issues for the past five years. President Jokowi spoke at COP 26 about Indonesia’s achievements in mitigating climate change which many Indonesian activists and environmentalists then criticized. He mentioned that Indonesia has been positively contributing to tackling climate change and that the deforestation rate in Indonesia has significantly reduced. Greenpeace criticized that all the Jokowi’s claims were not picturing the whole situation to Indonesia’s current condition. Greenpeace believed that the low rate of deforestation was not a product of policy intervention but merely from the wet season.
Just a day after COP 26 conference, the tweets from Siti Nurbaya, the Minister of Environment and Forestry, added fuel to the fire. She wrote a Twitter thread, explaining the vast development in Jokowi’s era should not be stopped only because of carbon emissions or deforestation. She also put the dilemma of the Indonesian government in achieving the net-zero carbon goal by 2030. “If the concept is no deforestation, that means there will be no roads, then how about the people, do they have to be isolated? Meanwhile the government must be present in the middle of its people”. The statement she put in her tweets was considered pro-deforestation, which contradicts her duty to contribute to Indonesia’s commitment to Net-Zero by 2060. It instantly got viral on social media. Aside from the controversy, the 2015 – 2019 National Medium Term Development Plan (RPJMN) mentioned six main national development goals: leading sector development targets, including food and energy. With monoculture food production and fossil fuel-based energy production, deforestation is inevitable, and Minister Siti’s controversial statement makes more sense and reflects the dilemma on forest management in Indonesia.
However, the urgency to create a global movement tackling climate change is because climate change is getting real. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global temperature was 1.1 degrees Celcius above the pre-industrial period in 2019. In addition to that, the total greenhouse gas emissions, including land-use change, reached 59.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. It is undeniable that Indonesia also significantly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. The Global Forest Watch summarized the tree cover loss that has been happening in Indonesia for the past ten years. For the last two decades, Indonesia lost 27.7 million hectares of tree cover and equivalent to 19 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. An article from WRI Indonesia mentioned that even though the overall deforestation rate is declining from 2015 to 2018, several provinces with an abundance of primary forest and peatland, which are East Kalimantan, Maluku, and West Papua, experienced a 43%, 40%, and 35% increase in deforestation, respectively. The impact of climate change affects the environmental and social aspects and dramatically affects the economy. In the 4th Indonesia Circular Economic Forum, the National Development Planning Agency of Indonesia or Bappenas mentioned that the economic loss due to climate change will reach 115 trillion rupiah in 2024. However, Indonesia can reduce the loss to 57 trillion rupiahs by making some efforts on mitigating climate change, Bappenas said.
The dilemma then brings up the question: how should the Indonesian government act on climate change mitigation in a way that is not threatening the continuity of national development but not stunting the growth of economic development? In 2004, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry issued an ecosystem restoration concession (ERC) regulation in the production forest area. ERC is a forest-based management model that allows the private sector to restore degraded lands and utilize non-timber products and environmental services in the production forest area. The idea behind ERC is to provide a license to investors, similar to logging and industrial forest permit, to reforest the area that the other two permit’s activities have impacted. ERC could help carbon capture scale and offset the carbon footprint from development activities if it runs well. And since private firms manage ERC, it could also positively impact the economy. Unlike NGO or non-profit organizations, the ERC scheme demands the operating company to profit through ecosystem restoration. It can be from utilizing non-timber products such as honey, bamboo, or rattan, cultivating medicinal plants, wildlife preservation, developing ecotourism, and carbon capture and sequestration.
Even though ERC is a relatively new concept and not as appealing and popular as other types of concession, some ERC companies managed to show some progress that supports Indonesia’s development plan and climate mitigation targets. The ERC of PT Rimba Makmur Utama (RMU), also known as the Katingan-Mentaya Project, focuses on carbon business to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and has sold its carbon credits to companies such as Shell, Volkswagen, and NP Paribas. By protecting and restoring the forest, RMU had Verified Carbon Units for about 4.34 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2017. A member of the APRIL group, PT Restorasi Ekosistem Riau (RER), also committed to protecting, restoring, and conserving the forest ecosystem through ERC. RER has been inventing flora and fauna, preventing forest fires, and conducting ecosystem research in its concession of 150.693 ha forest in Riau province. RER embodies APRIL’s commitment to conserving one hectare of land for every one hectare of APRIL’s pulp and paper plantation. PT Restorasi Ekosistem Indonesia (REKI), the first ERC license holder, has become a home to 1.350 species, improving local livelihood by protecting farmers’ right to land, promoting women’s rights, and preserving deforestation-free areas through its Hutan Harapan. And PT Restorasi Habitat Orangutan Indonesia (RHOI) has provided a secure habitat for more than 400 orangutans from BOS Foundation Orangutan Reintroduction program.
ERC business models typically include carbon sequestration, wildlife conservation, forest protection, utilizing non-timber forest product (NTFS), developing ecotourism, enhancing local economies, and research and development. These activities potentially support the national development plan in practice and in a strategic way. Five of the 7 Agenda in The National Medium Term Development Plan 2020-2024, which are strengthening economic resilience, reducing inequality from regional development, improving human resources, building national character and culture, and enhancing the natural environment and building climate and disaster resilience, could use ecosystem restoration concession as a strategy to achieve the sustainable development goals. Moreover, the implementation of Omnibus law can benefit investors in doing ecosystem restoration business. The current regulation issued by the Minister of Environment and Forestry, P.8/2021, allow multibusiness activities in production forest with only one permit, called PBPH. With PBPH, investors can be more flexible in choosing where to invest in ecosystem restoration. Moreover, the G20 presidency of Indonesia 2022 also forces president Jokowi to show off his capability and willingness in moving toward sustainable development. Promoting ERC and putting best practices into practice, ecosystem restoration can be the most strategic way to solve the dilemma between climate change and development.
Vietnamese PM Chinh visit to Japan: A new era of cyber, space and defence cooperation
Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh visited Japan from November 22-25 and discussions about trade, investment, defence, cultural and enhancing political ties took place between the two leaders. The former prime minister of Japan Suga had visited Vietnam in October 2020, and it was his first visit to any foreign country. With the coming of Fumo Kishida new prime minister in Japan, Vietnamese Prime Minister thought it prudent to engage the new political leadership. When recently Kurt Campbell stated that India and Vietnam will be crucial in deciding the fate of Asia and the three countries namely India, Vietnam and Japan have been closely cooperating with one another because of two major factors. The three countries are in the periphery of China and have major stakes in the resolution of the South China Sea dispute. Second, these three economies are promising economies in Asia and are seen to be major harbingers of technology, economic growth and sustainable development.
The visit of Vietnamese prime minister is primarily seen from the point of view of projecting the need for ‘Free and Open Indo Pacific’ and developing close cooperation between Vietnam and Japan. During the visit of Japanese defence minister to Vietnam last year several agreements have been signed between the two sides which included transfer of technology and defence trade between the two sides. Vietnam is facing a few challenges related to trade and investment, growing cases of Covid 19 pandemic, need for modernisation of its armed forces and realising the potential of the regional organisations such as ASEAN .In terms of developing necessary technical acumen for renewable energy sources and facilitating foreign direct investment from Japan were the major agendas for the visit of the Vietnamese Prime Minister.
The Vietnamese Prime Minister visit was his first official visit to Japan. Vietnam is increasingly seen as a middle power which requires support and cooperation from Japanese in areas such as waste management, infrastructure development, developing technology parks, export processing zones and vocational training skills to emerge as one of the engines of economic growth in Southeast Asia. In fact, Japan was the only few countries in Asia with which Vietnam has developed air bubble agreement during COVID-19 to facilitate travel of passengers and businesspeople from the two countries. Given the fact that Vietnam is slowly opening its trade and investment and tourism sector it would be looking for countries in Europe and in Asia to spur development in the country. Japanese tourists are important incoming visitors for Vietnam because of their spending and booking high end resorts and hotels.
Following the COP- 26 meeting which was held in London there have been huge expectations from the Asian countries to reduce their carbon footprints and look for other viable sources of energy. The visit of Vietnamese Prime Minister explored diverse issues related to politics, security, cultural interactions and development of human resources in Vietnam. The two defence ministers also signed aagreements related to transfer of technology and exports of Japanese defence equipment and weapons to Vietnam. Japan has already embarked on a policy to support littoral countries of South China Sea through patrol boats and fast attack crafts.
One of the critical areas that Vietnam is looking for is the development of technology and scientific rigour within the country. In this context collaboration with Japanese scientific institutions and academic community would help Vietnam to develop skills and human resources to cater to the industrial revolution 4.0. Also, Vietnam is looking for developing expertise in areas such as machine learning, big data mining, artificial intelligence, underwater systems, developing sustainable development and energy resources in those South China Sea islands so that the soldiers can become self-sufficient in energy and clean water resources. Japan has been looking for alternate sources of investment and developing infrastructure in countries such as Vietnam Cambodia and Laos. Vietnam itself is emerging as a viable alternative to China in the wake of recurring cases of COVID-19 pandemic in China. Japanese investors and entrepreneurs are looking for relocating their businesses and investments.
There is no denying of the fact that developments in South China Sea are of critical importance both for Vietnam and Japan, and it is expected that the two leaders discussed these issues in detail. The Chinese assertive activities in South China Sea have been deplored by Japan and other allied partners in the past. Vietnam is looking for cooperation with Japan in terms of submarine hunting capabilities and developing acumen for better management of human resources in defence sector. In terms of military cooperation between the two sides there is a lot of potential in terms of maritime surveillance aircraft, fast attack crafts, and coastal radar systems. Also, sonar systems and developing helicopter mounted surveillance systems would and has Vietnamese defence and surveillance capabilities. The two countries signed an agreement on space defence and cyber security.
One of the important critical areas that the two countries discussed was related to the implementation of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and promoting intra regional trade so that better complementarities could be developed between the two sides. Another important forum where Japan and Vietnam are members is CPTPP and there is speculation that President Joe Biden might be interested in re-joining the grouping. Taiwan and China have expressed interest in joining it, but Japan is in favour of only Taiwan. In such a context when the two countries are at the crossroads of economic integration and regional economic groupings, it is expected that the two leaders discussed necessary checks and balances so the trade interests of the two countries can be protected while enhancing the integration at the regional level.
Vietnam is also seen as a probable candidate for the Quad Plus initiative and Japan has been very insistent on engaging the country in a more proactive way. India, Vietnam and Japan could be one trilateral which will bring in a large market, Strong technology fundamentals, unique cultural identities and common strategic concerns acts as glue between the three countries. The development of Vietnam and Japan ties would reconfigure Asian identity and future.
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