India resets relation with Bangladesh in virtual meeting marking Victory Day
On 17 December, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi concluded a virtual meeting with his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina, thereby attempting to boost the country’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. “To strengthen relations with Bangladesh has been a priority since the first day,” said Modi at the meeting.
Both the leaders jointly restored a railway link by inaugurating the trans-boundary line between Haldibari in India and Chilahati in Bangladesh. It is the fifth pre-1965 railway link between the two countries that has been made operational again. A stamp commemorating the birth centenary of Bangladesh’s father of the nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was also released. Modi and Hasina also jointly inaugurated a digital exhibition on Mujibur Rahman and Mahatma Gandhi to celebrate legacies of both leaders.
During the meeting, a press statement released stated that India and Bangladesh had signed seven agreements in the areas of hydrocarbons, agriculture, textiles and community development, during the summit. Hasina, in her address, made strong reference to the Teesta agreement and urged India to expedite the conclusion of the river sharing framework.
What is the background?
First, resetting ties with Bangladesh. The virtual meeting breaks a period of lull in the bilateral relationship that was marked by anti-Modi protests, cancellations and bureaucratic reshuffles. Bangladesh declared 2020 as ‘Mujib Borsho’ and India had hoped to use this opportunity to strengthen ties with Hasina. However, Modi’s visit to Dhaka in August 2020 stood cancelled coinciding with protests in Dhaka over its handling of the Delhi riots. In December 2019, Bangladesh cancelled their Foreign and Home Ministers’ visit to India amid speculations that Awami League was unhappy at the Indian leadership’s repeated references to the Bangladeshi migrant/infiltrators in debates over the citizenship act. The reset started with Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s visit to Dhaka in August 2020 and the subsequent appointment of a new High Commissioner to Dhaka. This meeting now sets the trajectory for Modi’s visit to Dhaka in March 2021 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Liberation war.
Second, connectivity and health diplomacy as major takeaways. Both the countries continued with their tradition of publishing joint communique and connectivity remained the major outcome. The Chilahati-Haldibari rail link will help improve connectivity between Bangladesh and Indian states of Assam and West Bengal. The rail link was originally part of the broad-gauge main route that connected Kolkata and Siliguri. The restored trans-border rail link will initially facilitate the movement of goods cargo and later aid passenger movement. While India requested Bangladesh to have at least one land port, Bangladesh proposed that its trucks avail the Feni Bridge, once completed, for transportation of goods from Chittagong port to the North East of India. India also used the COVID-19 situation to indulge its health diplomacy with Modi assuring that vaccines would be made available to Bangladesh.
Third, a larger boost to the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. 2020 marks a period of restraints and resets in India’s larger ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. After a strained relation with Nepal over Lipulekh and Kalapani, India’s foreign secretary made a quick visit to call on Nepal’s Prime Minister Oli. The visit has set the stage for an equal response from Nepal foreign minister who is set to visit India in 2021. Similarly, India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval visited and called on Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and its defence secretary in November. The visit came after the Sri Lankan election and aimed at building a bridge with the Rajapaksas who have traditionally aligned with China in their foreign policy. Also, India’s Foreign Secretary in November called on Maldivian President Ibrahim Solih to take stock of India’s neighbourhood policy. The virtual meeting follows this larger trajectory of a flurry of diplomatic activities by India.
What does it mean?
The meeting adds new momentum to the bilateral relation, especially how India will direct its neighbourhood policies responding to the post-pandemic challenges. India has tactfully chosen the celebration of the Liberation War to strengthen its ties by revoking sentiments rooted in history.
The 2021 visit by Modi will serve as an important marker. It comes in the background of the state elections in West Bengal, the federal state where the change of power to Modi’s BJP is much anticipated. The state’s current leader Mamata Banerjee also remains an ardent critic of the Teesta river water agreement, a thorn in India’s bilateral relation with Bangladesh. While the connectivity push in this meeting also pushes India’s larger BIMSTEC and BBIN policies, several challenges remain in terms of expediting the road and port constructions such as the Asia trilateral highway or the inland waterways.
China Chang’e-5 success: The lunar missions and the larger space ambitions
On 17 December, the Chang’e-5 capsule carrying samples of rocks and soil from the moon landed safely in the northern Inner Mongolia region. The China National Space Administration (CNSA) director Zhang Kejian declared the mission a success.
What is the background?
First, China Chang’e-5 mission. It was the first mission in the past four decades to retrieve lunar surface samples after orbiting the moon for weeks. On the day of launch, Hua Chunying, a spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tweeted that the lunar exploration will benefit “international cooperation and the peaceful use of space.” Chang’e-5 mission focused on collecting two kilograms (4.5 pounds) of material from a volcanic plain on the moon known as Mons Rümker. This trip boosts President Xi’s plans of achieving the “space dream”. China became the third country to retrieve samples after the US in the 1960s followed by the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission of 1976. With the samples, scientists hope to study the Moon’s origins, the formation, and its volcanic activities. Pei Zhaoyu, deputy director of Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center of CNSA said these samples would be shared with scientists and research teams of different countries.
Second, China’s lunar exploration program- Chang’e, named after a mythical Chinese Moon goddess. In February 2004, China started the lunar space exploration program, which is an ongoing robotic mission under CNSA. The program incorporates lunar orbiters, landers, rovers, and sample return spacecraft, launched using Long March rockets. The lunar exploration has completed its three phases of ‘orbiting, landing, and return’. The first two Chang’e spacecraft were orbiters circling the moon. In the second phase, Chang’e-3 and 4 joined the US and the Soviet Union after their successful landing on the moon. Chang’e-4 also became the first to land on the far side of the moon. Finally, Chang’e-5 has achieved multiple firsts including the first-ever takeoff from the lunar surface, the first rendezvous and docking at lunar orbit, and a successful return to the earth. The fourth phase focuses on launching Chang’e-6, Chang’e-7, and Chang’e-8, to explore the Moon’s South Pole and to develop a robotic research station. China’s lunar mission aims to build a base on the moon by 2029.
Third, China’s larger space explorations and ambitions. Mao Zedong, after the launch of humankind’s first artificial satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957, said during the National Congress of the CPC in 1958, “We need to develop the artificial satellite too”. China launched its first satellite in 1970 on a Long March I rocket, followed by its first human spaceflight in 2003, making Yang Liwei the country’s first “taikonaut” (Chinese astronaut). In 2006, the CNSA during the 11th Five-year Plan said that China will be starting its deep space exploration focusing on Mars. It aims to set up its first unmanned Mars exploration by 2033. China currently plans to build a permanent space station by 2022.
Fourth, China’s space agency. The CNSA is a national space agency created in 1993. It has made significant strides in the space domain since its creation. In 2015-16 China tested four launch vehicles: Long March (LM) 5, LM6, LM7 and LM8. These vehicles were designed to carry payloads of different categories. It has also successfully launched Earth observation satellites for remote sensing under the Yaogan Weixing series. A 2016 white paper on China’s space domain identified three core interests. First, space-based navigation. In August 2020 China completed the BeiDou Navigation satellite system constellation. Second, developing a space station. Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2, both of which have been decommissioned, were initial prototypes of China’s space station. In the next two years, China will be carrying out 11 launches with 18 crew members for the space station project. Third, interplanetary missions. Tianwen-1, China’s Mars probe, is expected to reach and begin orbiting the planet by February 2021. Other Chinese interplanetary missions include an asteroid probe and a mission to orbit Jupiter.
What does it mean?
The landing on the dark side of the moon has opened a new historical advent in space exploration. Space will now become a new strategic location for interaction between countries. The US-China competition may spill in space.
The timing of Mike Pence’s naming of the space force, the ‘Guardians’, and their role in protecting American interests, may indicate the zero sum outlook of the Trump administration. This may challenge the Biden administration to maintain America’s preeminence in space and make space a confrontational or cooperative arena.
Also in the news…
by Akriti Sharma and Lokendra Sharma
East and Southeast Asia This Week
Thailand: The UN expresses concern over ‘lese-majeste’
On 18 December, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) expressed concern over the treatment meted out to pro-democracy protestors by the Thailand government. It said in a statement: “We are deeply troubled by the move by Thai authorities to charge at least 35 protesters in recent weeks, including a 16-year old student protester, under Article 112 — the lese majeste provision of Thailand’s criminal code.”
The Philippines: ICC report finds evidence of crimes against humanity
On 14 December, an International Criminal Court (ICC) report found “a reasonable basis” to believe that “crimes against humanity” were committed during the War on Drugs (WoD) launched by the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016. Thousands of suspects have been killed since 2016 by the Philippines police forces. The report also asserted ICC’s jurisdiction over probing the crimes committed till 16 March 2019, when the country’s withdrawal from the ICC took effect.
Indonesia: Trade deal signed with South Korea
On 18 December, Indonesia signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with South Korea. The CEPA is aimed at boosting trade and investment between both countries and will cover sectors such as automobiles, apparel and technology. Indonesia will eliminate 92 per cent of its tariff lines while South Korea will eliminate 95 per cent.
New Zealand: Jacinda Arden responds to Greta Thunberg’s criticism
On 14 December, New Zealand’s PM Jacinda Arden responded to climate activist Greta Thunberg’s criticism of the country’s climate change policies. Earlier, on 13 December, Thunberg had re-tweeted an article critical of New Zealand’s climate emergency declaration and called it “nothing unique to any nation.” New Zealand had pledged to achieve carbon neutrality in the public sector by 2025 while making the emergency declaration on 2 December. Defending her country’s actions, Arden said: “If it was the sum total of what we were doing, it would be worthy of criticism, it’s clearly not.”
South Asia This Week
Nepal: PM Oli agrees to withdraw the ordinance
On 15 December, Nepal’s PM Oli issued an ordinance to amend the Constitutional Council Act (Functions, Duties, and Procedures) 2010, according to which the meeting of the council could be convened even if it falls short of a quorum. Opposition leader Sher Bahadur Deuba protested against the ordinance referring to it as “undemocratic.” On 17 December, Oli agreed to withdraw the ordinance after Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who leads a rival faction in Oli’s Communist party, withdrew his petition to the Nepali President for holding a special session of the Parliament.
India: The UK Foreign Secretary’s visit
On 14 December, the UK’s Foreign Secretary arrived in India to discuss the bilateral relationship and strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific. A day later, he met PM Modi and discussed cooperation on the Enhanced Trade Partnership, COVID-19 vaccine, cybersecurity, maritime security, and climate change. He conveyed British PM Johnson’s acceptance of the invitation to be a part of India’s Republic Day celebrations in January; he also welcomed India’s return to the UNSC.
India: Ninth round of talks with China on the LAC agreed
On 18 December, the 20th meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation & Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC) was held virtually. Both sides reviewed the developments since the last WMCC meeting held in September and agreed to ensure complete disengagement on the friction points at LAC. They also agreed to hold a ninth round of military and diplomatic talks to restore peace and tranquility.
Pakistan: Visit by a Taliban delegation
On 16 December, the Taliban delegation visited Pakistan to discuss the Afghanistan peace process. The delegation met the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister and held talks over the peace negotiations and reduction of violence. Pakistani Foreign Minister in a statement said: “Taliban cannot be held single-handedly responsible for it. All sides had a role to play.” He added that Pakistan has conveyed that a stable and peaceful Afghanistan is not possible without an inclusive settlement.
Pakistan: The PDM gives an ultimatum to PM Imran Khan to step down
On 14 December, The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) gave a deadline to the PM Imran Khan to step down by 31 January 2021. Leaders of the opposition drafted and signed the Lahore Declaration against the government, holding it responsible for inflation, social injustice, and unemployment. The PDM chief in a press conference said: “In case the government does not step down the date of the long march will be announced on Feb 1. We ask the people of Pakistan to start preparations for the long march from today.”
Pakistan: Foreign Minister Qureshi visits the UAE
On 17 December, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi visited the UAE for two days. He held talks with UAE’s PM and Vice-President over bilateral cooperation in the areas of trade, investment, and the welfare of the Pakistani diaspora. He expressed hope that the issue of the temporary visa ban will be resolved soon.
Afghanistan: Taliban opposes to hold talks in the country
On 14 December, President Ghani said that the next round of talks with the Taliban would be held in Afghanistan. “The continuation of peace negotiations in Afghanistan gives the Taliban an opportunity to get connected with the realities of Afghanistan, with the high level of violence and with the pain that the people are feeling,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. However, the Taliban has opposed this demand.
Afghanistan: Surge in targeted assassinations
On 15 December, three people including a police officer, intelligence officer, and a provincial governor, were killed using sticky bombs attached to their vehicles in two different attacks in Kabul. Earlier, on 10 December, a woman journalist was also killed along with her driver. There has been a surge in the targeted assassinations of the government officials and pro-government leaders in the country.
Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa This Week
Iran: The JCPOA meeting
On 16 December, The Joint Commission of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s Nuclear program met virtually. The role of the US, the preservation of the deal and its balanced implementation were discussed. Chief of the IAEA said that the Biden administration’s re-entry into the JCPOA would require a new preliminary agreement for reversing Iran’s breaches.
Yemen: IRC report says country at risk of humanitarian catastrophe
On 16 December, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) warned that Yemen is at the risk of a humanitarian catastrophe. Continued conflict, hunger, and a decrease in humanitarian aid have led to worsening of the situation. Country’s majority population needs food, health, and education aid. The report also identified the following countries as part of its Watchlist 2021: Afghanistan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, South Sudan, Nigeria, Venezuela, and Mozambique.
Tunisia: Prime Minister rules out normalization of ties with Israel
On 15 December, the Tunisian PM Hichem Mechichi ruled out the establishment of ties with Israel. He said that Tunisia respects Morocco’s decision of recognizing Israel and that the Trump administration had not contacted him for the same. He added: “Every country has its own reality, its own truth and its own diplomacy, which it considers best for its people.”
Sudan: The US removes Khartoum from the terrorism list
On 14 December, Sudan welcomed the US decision of removing it from the State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST) list. In October, Washington reached a deal with Khartoum to remove it from the SST list after the latter agreed to pay USD 335 million compensation to the victims of the 1998 US embassy attacks. This comes two months after Sudan normalized ties with Israel in a US-brokered deal. Former Chief of Staff of the US Special Envoy to Sudan said that this marks a new era for both the countries.
Nigeria: Boko Haram releases schoolboys
On 17 December, Boko Haram released 344 schoolboys. Earlier, on 11 December, the students were kidnapped from Kankara Government Science Secondary School in Katsina. The governor of Nigeria’s Katsina state said that while they have recovered most of the boys, some are still missing. They were found in a forest in the neighbouring Zamfara state.
Europe and the Americas This Week
The UK: Fresh COVID lockdown, as the fear of a new variant grows
On 19 December, a new lockdown was imposed, ending the Christmas relaxation that was planned earlier. According to the BBC, “Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the changes for England at a Downing Street briefing after scientists said a new coronavirus variant was spreading more rapidly.” Also, according to the BBC, the tier-four areas in England will face a “stay-at-home order,” social meeting reduced to meeting only one person in the public space, and all non-essential will be closed down.
The UK: Time closes in for reaching an agreement
On 18 December, the EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier addressed the European Parliament on the Brexit talks situation. He said that it was a “moment of truth” and only a “few hours” were left to negotiate the deal for both the EU and the UK to have a trade arrangement on 1 January 2021. Senior members of the European Parliament made it clear that for any deal to be approved, its text has to be placed by 19 December. The WTO rules will kick in if both sides fail to reach an agreement after the transition period ends on 31 December 2020. Issues like fishing rights and “level playing field” remain unresolved.
Russia: Report blames FSB for poisoning Navalny
On 14 December, investigative website Bellingcat released a report looking into the August 2020 poisoning of the Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny. A joint investigation by Bellingcat, the Insider, Der Spiegel, and CNN implicated Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). It claimed the poisoning to be “mandated at the highest echelons of the Kremlin.” On 16 December, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the report and denied the allegations. On 17 December, President Putin said that if Russia’s agents were involved in this incident, they would have “finished” it.
France: Court finds 14 guilty in Charlie Hebdo trial
On 16 December, a French court convicted 14 people for their role in the terror attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s office and a Jewish supermarket in January 2015. The attacks left 17 people dead; the police also killed three attackers involved in the shootings. The convicted 14 accomplices were found guilty by the court of providing logistical support and were served varying sentences up to 30 years in jail. The conviction comes after a string of recent terror attacks in France, including the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty.
Mexico: Bill restricting “foreign agents” passed by the lower house
On 15 December, Mexico’s lower house of the Parliament passed a bill aimed at restricting the powers of “foreign agents” operating in the country. It would hamper the work of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in its fight against the drug cartels based in Mexico. This comes after Mexico’s former Defense Minister General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda was arrested at Los Angeles airport by the US officials in October 2020. He was subsequently cleared of drug trafficking charges and released following pressure from the Mexican government.
The US: Electoral College confirms Biden’s victory
On 14 December, the US Electoral College formally elected Joe Biden to be next President of the US. Biden, who needed to cross the 270 votes, secured 306 votes versus Trump’s 232. Hours after his victory, Biden said in a rally: “In this battle for the soul of America, democracy prevailed.” On 15 December, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from the Republican party for the first time acknowledged Joe Biden as president-elect. On 6 January 2021, the US Congress will certify the Electoral College votes in a special session; and Biden will finally take over as President on 20 January 2021.
The US: Massive Russian hacking unearthed
On 17 December, the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued an alert warning that the Russian hackers used unidentified tactics in addition to the “SolarWinds Orion software supply chain compromise”. The massive and ongoing suspected Russian intrusion began in March this year, with hackers gaining access into several US agencies including State Department, Homeland Security and Pentagon as well as several private companies like Microsoft. Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State blamed Moscow directly. On 19 December, in an interview, he said: “This was a very significant effort, and I think it’s the case that now we can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this activity.”
The US: Chinese chipmaker blacklisted
On 18 December, the US Commerce Department added 60 Chinese companies, including chipmaker Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC) and drone maker SZ DJI Technology Co Ltd, to a trade blacklist. The former was added owing to its alleged ties with the Chinese military; the latter over its alleged role in enabling human rights abuses. The Department said in a statement: “This action stems from China’s military-civil fusion doctrine and evidence of activities between SMIC and entities of concern in the Chinese military-industrial complex”.
The US: Moderna’s vaccine candidate approved by FDA
On 18 December, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the vaccine candidate developed by a US-based biotech company Moderna for emergency use. It becomes the second vaccine to be rolled out a week after Pfizer/BioNTech SE’s vaccine was approved. The US will purchase 200 million doses of the vaccine. President Trump tweeted: “Congratulations, the Moderna vaccine is now available!”
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