India and China: Disengagement confirmed along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh sector
On 10 February, the Hindu referred to a China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin making the following statement: “According to the consensus reached at the Chinese and Indian Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Moscow and the ninth round of commander-level talks between the two sides, the front-line troops of the Chinese and Indian militaries began to conduct simultaneous and planned disengagement in the Pangong Lake area on February 10. We hope the Indian side will work with China to meet each other halfway, strictly implement the consensus reached between the two sides and ensure the smooth implementation of the disengagement process.” The Global Times on the same day referring to a spokesperson at China’s Ministry of National Defense reported: “Frontline troops of the Chinese and Indian armies stationed at the southern and northern banks of the Pangong Tso began simultaneous, scheduled disengagement on Wednesday, in accordance to a consensus reached during the ninth round of corps commander-level meeting.”
On 11 February, the Indian defence minister made a statement in the Parliament; according to him, “The Chinese side will keep its troop presence in the North Bank area to east of Finger 8. Reciprocally, the Indian troops will be based at their permanent base at Dhan Singh Thapa Post near Finger 3. A similar action would be taken in the South Bank area by both sides…These are mutual and reciprocal steps and any structures that had been built by both sides since April 2020 in both North and South Bank areas will be removed and the landforms restored.” The defence minister also stated in the Parliament: “I want to assure this House that in these talks we have not conceded anything…It is, therefore, our expectation that the Chinese side will work with us in full sincerity to resolve these remaining issues.”
On 13 February, the Global Times referring to sources wrote again: “China and India are about to implement a disengagement plan under reciprocal principle with the premise that India should firstly withdraw staff who illegally crossed lines on the southern side of the Pangong Tso Lake.”
What is the background?
First, the long military standoff along the Line of Actual Control between India and China. The recent standoff started in May 2020 in Pangong Tso and expanded to other areas of the region in Ladakh. In June 2020, in one of the worst clashes in recent decades, 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers died in the Galwan valley. There were a few more “provocative military movements to change the status quo” by China in August 2020 in the Pangong Tso region, and “Indian troops pre-empted this PLA activity on the southern bank of Pangong Tso,” according to an Indian military statement. This was one of the longest military standoffs in recent years.
Second, the tough military and political negotiations since May 2020. There were nine rounds of meetings at the military levels, and two political meetings at the highest level (at the defence and foreign ministers level) before reaching the agreement. The present agreement on disengagement seems to have been finally reached at the ninth round held in January 2021.
Third the complex disengagement process and its verification. The negotiations between the two sides had to work hard in agreeing on disengagement to return to pre-standoff period. Who would disengage first, return to where and to which position–seemed to be the crucial questions.
What does it mean?
First carrying out the disengagement, verifying the process, and trust the other side. Given the nine rounds, and the limited information available on the disengagement process, the process would be phased and drawn to the minute level in terms of time and place.
Second, implementing the plan on the ground, of what is finalised in the meeting would be another challenge. Given the technology available, verification is possible. But the challenge would be to build trust. Both sides will have to work at the political and military levels; what happens along the border affects the political relations. Beijing and New Delhi should avoid this from repeating.
The US: Senate acquits Donald Trump once again, with Republicans voting against the impeachment
On 13 January, the Senate acquitted former President Donald Trump in a 57-43 vote in his second impeachment trial. A Senate trial requires a two-third majority as opposed to a House trial, which requires a simple majority to pass impeachment resolution. On Saturday, seven Republican senators voted in favour of conviction, short of the 67 total votes needed convict Trump. Following the acquittal, Trump issued a statement thanking his team and saying this was “yet another phase of the greatest witch hunt in the history of our country.”
On 9 January 2021, the impeachment trial was set in motion for a historic second time. The trial opened with a four-hour debate on whether the proceedings were constitutional because Trump is no longer president. A 56-44 majority then voted in favour of continuing with the trial, with six Republicans backing the measure. A successful impeachment in the Senate could have barred him from running for the President’s office again.
What is the background?
First, the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump. This is an unprecedented moment for the US, which has never placed a President on trial after he has left office. The primary charges against Trump are of instigating his supporters, who later barged inside the US Capitol on 6 January 2021.
Second, the arguments against and in favour of Trump. The impeachment managers have claimed that Trump has not apologised or shown remorse for his ‘incitement’ and therefore he should not hold the President’s office again. Trump’s lawyers argued that his speech at the rally that preceded the riot was “ordinary political rhetoric” protected by the Constitution and claimed that Democrats were motivated by their “political hatred” of the former president and impeached him as an act of retribution.
Third, the numbers in the Senate, and the challenge of impeachment. Getting the impeachment resolution passed in the Senate was always going to be difficult because it required a significant number of Republicans from Trump’s own party to vote to support the Impeachment motion.
What does it mean?
First, the Senate acquittal means both political and personal exoneration for Donald Trump. Technically, it means that Trump can run for Presidential election in 2024. Trump’s return to Presidential run is very much a possibility as the percentage of vote share for Trump in the recently held US Presidential shows significant support for him.
Second, the Senate trial had also generated questions about the future of the Republican Party with its growing internal divisions. Although the Senate trial may have put such assumptions at bay, it remains to be seen if the Republican Party will witness the rise of a leader that really unites the Party in the next four years.
The United Arab Emirates: The Hope mission enters the Mars Orbit
On 9 February 2021, the United Arab Emirates’ first interplanetary mission to Mars, called Hope, was placed into orbit around the planet. The UAE becomes the fifth spacefaring country after the US, the Soviet Union, Europe, and India. Mohammad Al Gergawi, Minister of Cabinet Affairs, called the success a national achievement that brings pride to every Emirati and Arab, and stated, “The journey of the Hope Probe reflects the broader journey of the UAE. The challenges that faced the mission team in turning the probe from a dream to reality in six years mirrors the challenges the UAE has faced in its journey as a nation who made the impossible possible.”
What is the background?
First, Mars Missions over the decades. 49 missions have been made to Mars, since the first successful flyby in 1965. The mission types include flyby, orbiters, or rovers. Four space agencies have successfully made it to Mars: NASA, the former Soviet Union space program, the ESA and ISRO. Space programs of Japan and China, have attempted Mars or Martian moon missions without success. The successful missions of UAE and China would add to the total successful agencies to six. Currently, China’s Tianwen-1 and the US’ Perseverance Rover, are expected to reach the red planet with a 10-day gap.
Second, the UAE’s Hope Mission. Hope is UAE’s fourth space mission and first interplanetary mission. The Hope probe was launched on 19 July 2020, onboard Japan’s H-2A rocket from the Japanese space centre and has travelled for seven months and at a speed of 120,000hm/h. This week, it executed a 27-minute precise burn to manoeuvre and be captured by the Martian gravity. Hope probe has an overall mission life of one Martian year, about 687 earth days. The mission was announced in 2014 with a cost of approximately USD 200m, marking the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission. The satellite carries three instruments that will study the seasonal and daily changes in the Martian atmosphere. Hope is expected to collect more than one terabyte (1,000 GB) of new data, which will be shared with over 200 academic and scientific institutions worldwide for free. The mission has been developed and managed by seven engineers who are all said to be below the age of 35.
Third, the rise of the middle powers in Outer Space. The 2020s would see the domain grow both laterally and horizontally. A high number of space agencies have planned for ambitious missions in Outer space. In 2022, Russia and the ESA have their Mars missions planned. The Hope mission’s success can be seen as a display of multi-institutional collaboration between the US, Japan and UAE. These collaborations could act as the driving force behind a significant increase in the number of nations that are developing their space programs for bigger missions but at affordable expenses.
What does it mean?
The missions to Mars in the 1960s and the 1980s were driven by the need to explore the planet. Since the confirmation of the presence of ancient water on the Martian soil in 2000, there has been a renewed interest to explore the planet. By the 1990s, the costs of outer space missions reduced, encouraging more projects to reach the red planet. The following decade is expected to see many such attempts at deep space explorations with long-term goals with crucial security implications. Having successful missions is a sign of national prestige, however, they carry the underlying political-economic interests of the nations investing in them. For example, the end goal of UAE’s mission is to establish a human colony on Mars by 2117.
The WHO mission in China: COVID-19 virus did not emerge from the Wuhan lab
On 9 February, the WHO experts presented their preliminary finding stating that “the origin of COVID-19 is yet to identify, and it is unlikely to have leaked from a Chinese lab.” Peter Ben Embarek, head of WHO mission said, “Our initial findings suggest that the introduction through an intermediary host species is the most likely a pathway, and require more studies, specific and targeted research.” The team also pointed at a further investigation into cold chain products, “referring to transport and trade of frozen products.”
On 12 February, a WHO independent investigator said, “Chinese scientists refused to share raw data that might bring the world closer to understanding the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.” Chinese scientists also disclosed 92 people being hospitalized with a symptom of fever and cough in Wuhan in October 2019.
What is the background?
First, the call for an independent investigation into the origin of COVID-19. The first cluster surfaced in Wuhan, in December 2019; it was linked to the Chinese seafood and poultry markets. The then US President Trump called it a Chinese virus. Among other countries, Australia also called for a WHO investigation into the origins of the virus. The US accused the WHO of being pro-China and pushed for withdrawing from the health agency. In response, Zhao Lijian, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson accused the US military of bringing coronavirus to China. China imposed trade barriers on Australian goods after Australia pushed for an investigation into the origins of the virus. In November, the New York Times reported that the Chinese ambassador lobbied WHO against the declaration of an international emergency in the early days of the pandemic.
Second, the WHO mission to China. For several months China delayed the visit of WHO experts to Wuhan, where the first clusters were reported. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of WHO said, he was “very disappointed” by the delays. In July, a small team of WHO experts entered China but was forced to carry out an investigation from a distance. They were also discouraged from questioning China’s response to the outbreak.
In October, as more countries started blaming China for the pandemic and called on China for transparency, the team of researchers from WHO and Chinese started over the discussions on the origin of coronavirus and how it is transmitted to the human body. After months of negotiations, the Chinese government allowed a team of 15 scientists to visit. Among them, two scientists weren’t allowed to China after they tested positive for coronavirus antibodies. The team faced hurdles like visa delays, quarantine restrictions, and political stonewalling in the country.
Third, the finding. In the joint press meeting on 09 February, the Chinese experts, and the WHO team, disclosed their key findings. First, no COVID-19 spread in Wuhan before 19 December 2020. Second, coronavirus most likely emerged in bats and spread to humans through another animal which is yet to be identified. Third, the Huanan seafood market may not be the first place of the outbreak. Fourth, it is extremely unlikely that the virus leaked from a lab in Wuhan. Fifth, it may be possible that the virus spread to humans through frozen food. Lastly, the virus may not be passed from the animal-to-human transmission.
What does it mean?
First, the mission is yet to identify the origins of the virus, transmission and spread. China used the WHO visit as a public relation exercise. The investigation remains politicized and the blame game continues.
Second, the primary accusation on the leak of the virus on China’s Virology lab stands dismissed after the WHO visit rendering allegations baseless.
Also in the news…
By Avishka Ashok
East and Southeast Asia This Week
China: Australian journalist accused of sharing state secrets
On 8 February, Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist of Chinese origin was arrested for leaking state secrets while working as an anchor for CGTN. She was detained in August 2020 but was formally arrested this week. A formal investigation will be initiated against Lei. China has demanded Australia to not interfere in its judicial matters and respect its judicial sovereignty when Australian authorities tried to enquire regarding Lei’s rights and treatment as a detainee.
China: Xi’s first phone call with Biden
On 11 February, President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden shared a telephonic conversation which lasted two hours. Biden expressed his greetings and well wishes to China on the occasion of the Lunar New Year. The two leaders spoke about human rights, trade and regional superiority during the phone call. They even touched upon contentious issues such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang.
China: State Broadcasting Regulator bans the BBC
On 11 February, BBC World News was accused of flouting China’s guidelines after the British public service broadcaster published a critical report on the ‘re-education’ camps in the country, accusing Chinese authorities of systemic rape and torture of the Uighurs. China’s National Radio and Television Administration stated that the BBC violated “the requirement that news should be truthful and fair and not harm China’s national interests”. The developments took place soon after London banned the Chinese state-owned broadcaster CGTN for breaking UK’s laws on state-backed ownership.
Japan: Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee Chief resigns after sexist remark
On 11 February, Yoshiro Mori, the chief of Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee stepped down from his position for making sexist remarks on 5 February. He opined that meetings were stretched longer due to competitive women wanting to make their point. The remark resulted in an uproar by people within and outside Japan. The embassies of Poland, Finland, Sweden, Ireland and Portugal among many others posted a picture with their female staff in protest to the statement. 380 volunteers quit in protest and thousands of emails and calls were made by individuals who expressed their disappointment with the ex-chief. A woman official may now lead the committee.
North Korea: The UN report claims violation of international sanctions
On 8 February, the independent UN sanctions monitors observed that North Korea maintained and developed nuclear weapons and missiles all through 2020, thus violating the provisions of the international sanctions which have been placed on the country. The funds for the programme, approximately $300 million, were acquired through cyber-hacks. The programme included producing fissile material, maintaining nuclear facilities and upgrading the missile infrastructure.
Myanmar: Civil Disobedience Movement continues
On 12 February, Myanmar entered its 7th consecutive day of protests after the military took over political power in the country in a coup. Aung Sang Suu Kyi continues to remain in detention along with Win Myint, who has been charged for violation of the Export and Import Law. The protests have continued to grow at a steady pace with healthcare workers, civil servants, teachers, students and other citizens resisting and boycotting the military-owned products in the country. As of 9 February, 220 people have been detained concerning the military coup.
New Zealand: All contacts with Myanmar suspended
On 9 February, the Parliament of New Zealand announced that the country would suspend all high-level political and military contact with Myanmar as a reaction to the military coup which detained Aung Sang Suu Kyi and other members of the NLD. New Zealand has placed a travel ban on the military leaders and excluded the military from all aid programs which might benefit them.
South Asia This Week
Pakistan: Tests a high precision ballistic missile
On 11 February, Pakistan test-fired a surface-to-surface ballistic missile capable of targeting land and sea targets. A Multi Tube Missile Launch Vehicle was used for the launch test of the missile. This is the country’s third successful missile test in the last three weeks.
Afghanistan: UN Security Council report on the Taliban’s ties with terror groups
On 7 February, the Foreign Ministry of Afghanistan reported that the Taliban has maintained close ties with the Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups despite claiming to advocate peace in the country. The claim comes after UN Security Council Watchdog Group indicated the Taliban’s continued relations and coordination of activities with other terrorist outfits in the Taliban controlled areas. The UN also released a report which recognized Pakistan’s efforts in curbing terrorist activities in the country. The report also shed light on the reunification of Tehreek-i-Taliban’s splinter groups in Afghanistan which is considered to be a concerning development.
Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa This Week
Azerbaijan: Armenia sued for human right violations
On 8 February, Azerbaijan accused Armenia of human rights violations during the 30-year occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region and during the war in 2020 at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Armenia is also charged for its use of ballistic missiles, white phosphorus munitions and cluster munitions on villages that did not fall in the conflict zone, resulting in the total destruction of over 9000 houses and civilian lives.
Iran: Begins production of Uranium metal
On 10 February, the UN atomic watchdog agency reported that Iran had begun the production of uranium metal which violates the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, signed by Iran, Germany, France, Britain, China, Russia and the US in 2015. Iran has produced 3.6 grams of uranium metal at Isfahan plant. Uranium metal is one of the key ingredients used in the preparation of a nuclear bomb.
Saudi Arabia: Houthis attack Abha Airport
On 10 February, the Houthi militia targeted the Abha International Airport, causing an aeroplane to catch fire. There were no civilian casualties and the fire was doused quickly, preventing further damage. The attack was viewed negatively by the Arab coalition as well as the international community who believe that the attack on civilians is a war crime. Bahrain, UAE, Egypt, Jordan, The Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab Parliament denounced the attack.
Saudi Arabia: Loujain al-Hathloul released from prison
On 10 February, Loujain Hathloul, a women’s rights activist who raised her voice against multiple draconian laws of Saudia Arabia spent over 1000 days in prison and has been finally released. She pushed for women’s driving rights and to bring an end to the male guardianship law in Saudi Arabia. Her release was appreciated by Joe Biden who said: “she is a powerful advocate for women’s rights and releasing her from prison was the right thing to do”.
Israel: Netanyahu pleads guilty at trial
On 8 February, Prime Minister Netanyahu attended his trial where he pleaded not guilty to the allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The trial which had been initiated in 2020 was postponed due to the pandemic and has finally recommenced in February 2021. Three cases numbered 1000, 2000 and 4000 are the subject matter of this trial. Netanyahu has not stepped down from the post of Prime Minister yet as he can continue until he is convicted.
Ethiopia: The UNHCR claims human rights violations in Tigray refugee camps
On 11 February, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees called for the protection of two refugee camps who have fallen victim to the ruthless conflict in the Tigray Region. The camps were attacked by armed men, and a large number of the refugee population was abducted and killed. As many as 108 cases of rape and severe food shortage has been reported from the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. While the international community, including the EU, have condemned Eritrea for sending troops to the region, Addis Ababa and Asmara have dismissed the claims.
Sudan: Prime Minister reshuffles cabinet
On 8 February, the Prime Minister of Sudan appointed his new cabinet to ease the financial crisis affecting the country. He has appointed the rebel leader from Darfur, Gibril Ibrahim as the finance minister and other ministers from the armed group, Sudan Revolutionary Front. The reshuffle comes after a peace deal which was aimed at concluding the violence in Darfur and other parts of Southern Sudan.
Europe and the Americas This Week
Italy: New cabinet in place
On 12 February, the former head of European Central Bank, Mario Draghi consented to act as the Prime Minister of Italy and has appointed technocrats and politicians from a broad coalition in his cabinet. The President offered Mario a chance to form the government after the previous administration failed, causing Conte to resign. Draghi has received the support of almost all parties in the political spectrum. Many important positions have been filled by technocrats who have no political affiliations and the Cabinet includes eight women.