QUAD: Biden’s first multilateral dialogue on Indo-Pacific
On 12 March, US President Joe Biden hosted the first virtual summit of the QUAD, which was attended by the Prime Ministers of India, Japan and Australia. The leaders reaffirmed their commitment to promote free and open Indo-Pacific, pledged to respond to the impact of COVID-19, and address shared challenges including climate change, technology, and disaster relief.
During the summit, President Biden said: “We’re renewing our commitment to ensure that our region is governed by international law, committed to upholding universal values, and free from coercion.” The US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan during a press briefing said: “The four leaders did discuss the challenge posed by China, and they made clear that none of them have any illusions about China. But today was not fundamentally about China. Much of the focus was on pressing global crises, including the climate crisis and COVID-19.”
On the same day, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said: “We hope relevant countries will follow the principles of openness, inclusiveness and win-win results, refrain from forming closed and exclusive ‘cliques’ and act in a way that is conducive to regional peace, stability and prosperity.”
On 13 March, the Washington Post published an opinion by the four QUAD leaders; according to it, “we have agreed to partner to address the challenges presented by new technologies and collaborate to set the norms and standards that govern the innovations of the future. It is clear that climate change is both a strategic priority and an urgent global challenge, including for the Indo-Pacific region. That’s why we will work together and with others to strengthen the Paris agreement and enhance the climate actions of all nations. And with an unwavering commitment to the health and safety of our people, we are determined to end the covid-19 pandemic because no country will be safe so long as the pandemic continues.”
What is the background?
First, Biden’s approach towards the Indo-Pacific. Biden has continued Trump’s policy on the Indo-Pacific to contain China in the region. On 3 March, the Biden administration released the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. It stresses building deeper connections with the Indo-Pacific region through a robust presence in the region. Convening the QUAD summit reiterates Biden’s strong position on Indo-Pacific.
Second, the widening scope of QUAD. On 20 March 2020, a QUAD Plus meeting was conducted that included Vietnam, South Korea, and New Zealand apart from the QUAD countries to discuss the COVID-19 spread. QUAD has been broadening its scope by partnering with countries over shared interests. Moreover, there is a widening of areas of cooperation. Vaccine diplomacy and climate change widen the scope for cooperation among the QUAD countries.
Third, worsening relations with China. The hardening of ties with China is a common challenge that the QUAD countries are facing. India is in a boundary dispute with China over LAC in the Galwan Valley. Australia is in a trade dispute with China on exports. Japan is in a dispute with China in the East China Sea over the Senkaku Islands. Deteriorating relations have encouraged the countries to actively engage in QUAD.
What does it mean?
First, the reiteration of the significance of QUAD and Indo-Pacific. Biden’s rigorous but nuanced approach will have greater implications for the Indo-Pacific region.
Second, widening areas of cooperation will increase the scope for other countries in the region to establish a partnership with QUAD countries and work towards promoting free and open Indo-Pacific, contain Chinese aggression, and work on areas of shared regional and global concern.
Ten years after Fukushima: A disaster that changed the nuclear trajectory
On 11 March 2021, Japan observed the 10th anniversary of the earthquake (and tsunami) and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Silent prayers were held across the country to mourn the victims. Japanese Emperor Naruhito and PM Suga took part in a commemorative ceremony in Tokyo where they held a moment of silence at 1446 hrs (JST), the exact time at which the earthquake struck 10 years ago.
On the same day, anti-nuclear protestors held a rally in front of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
What is the background?
First, the disaster. On 11 March 2011, a massive earthquake off the east coast of Japan, generating a tsunami killed 18000 people. It slammed into the Fukushima nuclear power plant making it the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
Second, the multi-faceted fallouts in Japan. The accident struck a blow to Japan’s large nuclear power industry, which supplied one-third of electricity. Post-disaster, most of the reactors were shut down; today electricity contribution of nuclear is less than ten per cent. The post-disaster cleaning up of the nuclear power plant has been a challenge. Even after a decade, the cleaning operations are not over and estimates range from 30 years to a century. The costs, meanwhile, have spiralled up; one estimate puts it around USD 200 billion. The human and environmental fallout has been significant. Over the years, a huge amount of radiation has been released into the atmosphere and to the ocean. Although no death has been associated with the Fukushima disaster so far, close to 40000 people are still displaced after a decade.
Third, global fallouts. Not just in Japan, but the nuclear industry faced a downturn globally. Many countries in Europe like Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Switzerland, abandoned their nuclear energy plans. According to IAEA, between 2011 and 2020, 65 reactors were either shut down or their operational life was not extended, making it a loss of 48 GWe of nuclear capacity globally.
Fourth, nuclear energy in the climate change debate. Nuclear energy fares better than renewable energy sources like solar and wind because the latter suffer from the problem of intermittency, grid integration, large area requirement and low plant load factor. Nuclear energy is, therefore, best suited to replace coal as a baseload energy supplier. However, in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, and with improving renewable technology, the global consensus has shifted towards renewable sources, which continue to get cheaper and efficient. While nuclear is clean energy, renewables are both clean and safe energy sources.
What does it mean?
Even though nuclear power generating countries and the IAEA worked together to augment the safety of nuclear power plants post-Fukushima, the nuclear risk perception globally remains at an all-time high. And, with rapid innovations happening in the renewable sector (including higher efficiency of solar cells and wind turbines, better battery storage technology), the world will likely rely increasingly on renewable sources as it phases out coal-based power plants to meet climate change obligations (including net-zero emissions by 2050).
The future of nuclear energy looks bleak, barring a few countries like India and China, which continue to have ambitious nuclear power programmes. And it is unlikely that Japan, where it all started, will be able to revive its nuclear programme despite the government’s willingness as the domestic public opinion remains strongly anti-nuclear.
China’s Two Sessions: Emphasis on Science, Technology and Innovation
On 11 March 2021, the “Two Sessions” of China – the annual meetings of two important institutions – the National People’s Congress (NPC), and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) came to an end.
The two sessions, of many things, endorsed a five-year blueprint for China’s economic recovery, besides approving administrative changes to Hong Kong.
What is the background?
First, the political importance of the two sessions. Though these two annual meetings of the NPC and the CPPCC take place together in March every year, these are two separate events. The NPC acts as China’s legislature, meets once a year, and is considered as the “highest organ of State power.” The members of the NPC were elected for five years, and the present NPC (the 13th) was elected in March 2018. The NPC is perceived as an “endorsing” institution by the rest of the world. On the other hand, the CPPCC is an advisory body, comprising members of the Communist Party of China and others; according to an official source, the current National Committee of the CPPCC has 2158 members, with 859 from the Communist Party of China. The two sessions are considered as the most important development, as it highlights the government’s thinking on contemporary issues, and also provide a roadmap for China’s economic, political and international outlook.
Second, the focus of the 2021 session on the economy. With COVID-19’s fallouts on the economy, there has been an extra focus on China’s roadmap. Premier Li Keqiang, presented a five-year plan, aimed at a six per cent growth rate, with a focus on research and innovation. According to an analysis, science and technology “appeared about 86 times in the draft of the latest five-year plan, compared with 29 in the previous iteration.” There has been a focus on artificial intelligence, quantum computing and blockchain technology.
Third, the focus on Hong Kong. While the two sessions looked at multiple issues, there was an extra focus at the global level, on what did these two sessions discuss and decide on Hong Kong. In the two sessions, it was agreed to make structural changes to Hong Kong administration, that China considers would provide greater control to Beijing. On the other hand, the critics of Beijing in Hong Kong and elsewhere consider that the new changes would bring an end to the “one country, two systems” setup, and affect the democratic institutions in letter and spirit.
What does it mean?
First, China is likely to look inwards to take its economy forward. It is likely to invest more in Science, Technology and Innovation as a strategy to achieve economic self-reliance. Given the recent emphasis at the global level on technology, innovation and the politics over it, especially between the US and China, Beijing sees this as an essential component to drive its growth engine.
Second, the proposed five-year plan is not about economic recovery alone; it is about closing the technological divide as soon as possible and increase the divide between China and the rest of the world.
Third, despite international criticisms, Beijing is likely to go ahead with its plan to increase its effective control over Hong Kong. This is a foregone conclusion; the rest of the world should give more focus on the first two implications, than narrowly focussing only on the third.
Also in the news…
By Avishka Ashok
East and Southeast Asia This Week
China: China National Space Administration signs MOU with Russia
On 9 March, the China National Space Administration reported that China and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on the joint construction of an international lunar research station. The two countries will cooperate on joint consultation, construction and sharing of responsibilities in the creation of the research station. The project aims to enhance scientific exchange and encourages the use of space.
China: Government launches vaccination passport for cross-border travel
On 8 March, China joined Bahrain and other EU countries in launching a digital certification for its citizens who wish to travel abroad. The move comes as the countries try to reopen their economies which are dependent on business travel and tourism. On 9 March, the Foreign Minister of China explained that the certificate will provide mutual verification of vital information related to the vaccination process. The WHO, however, expressed concerns over vaccine certification. An official at WHO said, “The mutual recognition of the health code may not be a complicated technical question, but whether different countries would accept the mutual recognition remains a major issue considering that the anti-epidemic prevention measures are different with no unified evaluation and standards.”
South Korea: Lawmakers reach an agreement with the US on cost-sharing of troops
On 10 March, the South Korean Foreign Ministry announced that the country would contribute $1.04 billion to host American troops on the peninsula. The new amount is the biggest hike in two decades and 13.9 per cent more than the previous plans. The plan has been renewed for six years. The current plan is still a more favourable plan than the one proposed by the Trump administration which pushed Seoul to pay $5 billion per year.
South Korea: Civic and religious groups extend support to protests in Myanmar
On 9 March, executive director Cho Jin Tae of May 18 Memorial Foundation, one of the many civic and religious groups in South Korea extending their support to the protests in Myanmar, said, “We’re building a coalition in Gwangju.” The country is providing the protestors with medical supplies which are in demand in the country. While explaining the intention to repay the kindness received in the 1980s and 90s, Cho said, “The Myanmar communities here will not be left alone. They have our full support.”
Myanmar: Suu Kyi accused of taking bribes
On March 11, the military accused Aung Sang Suu Kyi of taking approximately USD 600,00 and over 11kg of gold illegally. This is the strongest accusation placed on the leader since the coup but the military provided no evidence of the crime. The protestors in the country continue to express dissent towards the military rule while the soldiers and police try to harshly clampdown the protests; leading to 70 deaths. At least two NLD leaders have lost their lives while being held in detention. The protests led to a nun pleading with the soldiers, asking them to not use violence against children who were protesting. The soldiers also pleaded to the nun while explaining that they were carrying out their duties. The military is also engaging in night raids and cracking down on protestors violently; leading to the deaths of several citizens. Over five media groups have lost their license but have pledged to continue reporting and provide information through social media and online portals.
Indonesia: Switzerland approves FTA with Indonesia
On 7 March, Swiss voters approved a Free Trade Agreement with Indonesia which opens up an extensive potential market for Switzerland. The voters decided to accept the import of Indonesian Palm Oil which was mired in controversy due to questions raised on the sustainability of the product. Although the public voted to accept the product, the public has voiced their concern and urged citizens to be more sensitive towards environmental issues.
Thailand: Leaders jailed for defying monarchy
On 8 March, three protest leaders were arrested for insulting the monarchy and 18 activists were arrested on charges of sedition and anti-government activities in the last year. The protestors can be imprisoned for up to 15 years for criticizing the King. The three leaders denied charges but the court rejected their appeal for bail and called for the next trial on 15 March. More than hundreds of pro-democracy protestors continue to express discontent against the monarchy in the country.
South Asia This Week
India: Mizoram CM promises refuge to Myanmar
On 9 March, the Chief Minister of Mizoram urged the state to provide temporary shelter and food to refugees from Myanmar while the centre decides on how to proceed with the situation. Several police officers and families have crossed over into the state through the porous borders after the military forcefully took power. The military regime has demanded the authorities in Mizoram to return the police officers to Myanmar.
India: PM Modi inaugurates bridge to Bangladesh
On 9 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi virtually inaugurated the 1.9km Maitri-Setu bridge that will enhance the trade between the countries and provide access to Chattogram port. Over 133 crore rupees were spent on the construction of the bridge. Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh said that the bridge would prove to be a “trading lifeline” for two countries. The new infrastructure development will give Agartala a quicker and direct connection to the international port.
India: British envoy summoned over farmers’ protest issue
On 9 March, India protested against the discussion of the farmers’ protest in the UK Parliament, calling it “unwarranted and tendentious.” British Envoy, Alex Ellis, was called upon and a formal demarche was served after the parliament collected more than 115,000 signatures to object to the Indian government’s handling of the farmers’ protest and cut down of media freedoms.
Nepal: Political parties engage in intense debates to stress government formation
On 9 March, the Election Commission concluded that the NCP had no right to the name and dismissed its existence. On 10 March, the four major parties in Nepal’s political system were occupied in an intense debate to decide on the way forward for the country after the judge dismissed the ruling party’s registration. The numerous communist parties in the country are now fighting to win a majority in the country which would enable them to form the government.
Sri Lanka: Community remembers horrifying Easter attack, holds Black Sunday
On 7 March, the Archbishop of Colombo addressed a crowd of parishioners who dressed in black and held placards to silently show their respect for the families who lost their close ones in the terrorist attack of April 2019. The protest was referred to as the “Black Sunday” protest. Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith said, “No-one who wants to promote hatred and religious strife will receive our support. We believe there should be unity and brotherhood among different ethnic and religious groups all over the world.”
Sri Lanka: Colombo invites Military regime for BIMSTEC meet
On 10 March, Sri Lanka invited the military government in Myanmar to a meeting of Asian Foreign Ministers but has clarified its anti-coup stance. Netizens took to Twitter to protest against a leaked letter that hinted at Sri Lankan authorities’ invitation to Myanmar.
Pakistan: Prime Minister extends port facilities to Uzbekistan
On 10 March, Prime Minister Imran Khan held an assurance meeting with Uzbekistan’s Foreign Minister and promised access to Pakistani ports. Uzbekistan, which uses Iranian ports as of now, sent its delegation to Pakistan for a two-day visit when the arrangement was discussed. Imran Khan said that Pakistan’s ports can become “the gateway to landlocked Central Asia as Pakistan provided the Central Asian Republics the shortest route to international seas.”
Pakistan: Chief of Army Staff urges resumption of peace negotiation in Afghanistan
On 8 March, the Chief of Pakistan’s Army Staff met with the US Special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad and the Commander Resolute Support Mission Afghanistan. During the meeting, the officials discussed mutual issues of regional security and the ongoing Afghanistan Reconciliation Process. On 9 March, General Bajwa along with the Director-General of Inter-services Intelligence also attended a session on the Aghan peace process in Bahrain. The meeting encouraged the application of an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process to restart and fasten the stalled negotiations in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan: Political leaders and Taliban discuss US peace deal
On 10 March, Afghan leaders emphasized the need to reassess the proposed peace deal and urged the Ghani government to stop creating obstacles in the path to peace. The former vice-president opined that the deal proposed by the US needed few amendments but shouldn’t be rejected blindly. The Taliban, however, has praised the efforts of the US and Blinken’s letter to Afghanistan. Former Taliban envoy to Pakistan said, “Recent moves by the US and the move to send a letter to Afghanistan (Antony Blinken’s letter) shows that the US has a strong interest in the situation in Afghanistan and it wants the Afghan issue to be resolved soon.” The letter talks about ways to accelerate the peace process such as holding an UN-facilitated conference with international stakeholders, proposals to promote negotiation between the two parties of the conflict and a meeting in Turkey to finalize the agreement.
Central Asia, Middle East and Africa This Week
Uzbekistan: Army contingent reaches India
On 8 March, the Uzbek army contingent arrived in New Delhi for the joint military exercise, Dustlik-II. The exercise attempts to increase military cooperation between the two countries and focuses on counter-terrorist operations. The Indian army was represented by the Rezang La Battalion Kharga Warriors during the military exercise. A second session of the exercise will be held between 10 March and 19 March.
Lebanon: Citizens continue to protest against the political and economic crises
On 8 March, Lebanon marked the seventh consecutive day of protests in the country. The protestors are demanding a solution to the long-drawn economic hardships and political shutdown which has paralyzed the country’s basic disaster management agencies. Main roads were blocked as the citizens took to the streets after the Prime Minister threatened to quit to increase pressure on leaders blocking the formation of the new government. On 11 March, the energy minister cautioned that the country was fast approaching a total black-out due to the economic conditions of the energy sector.
Yemen: The US pushes for Houthi leaders for negotiation
On 8 March, the US Department of State spokesperson urged the Houthi leaders to “stop attacking and start negotiating.” He opined that the group must now begin engaging in a political process to work towards peace in the war-ravaged country. On 7 March, the Houthis attacked an oil factory in Saudi Arabia using drones and missiles. The armed group also targeted several military targets in the city.
Saudi Arabia: Loujain al-Hathloul loses appeal to amend court verdict
On 10 March, the Saudi court rejected the Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist, al-Hathloul’s appeal for amending the judgement. The activist who is currently on bail after serving six months in prison has been restricted from travelling for five years. Amnesty International condemned the court’s decision and said, “Today’s verdict is just the latest demonstration of Saudi Arabia’s intent to continue crushing all forms of dissent inside the country,”
Israel: Police arrests former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem
On 10 March, former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Ikrima Sabri, was arrested from his house by the Israeli police and intelligence. There is no explanation behind the arrest of Sabri who preaches at a mosque in Jerusalem. On the same day, the Islamic Endowments Authority alleged that dozens of Israeli settlers had forced their way into the compound of the AL-Aqsa Mosque, where Sabri preaches. Sheikh Sabri also noticed an increase in raids by right-wing Jewish groups.
Equatorial Guinea: Explosives kill over 100 citizens
On 7 March, a military base in the city of Bata caught fire and led to the explosion of barracks holding bombs and explosives. The official death toll is said to be 105 but the actual casualties may be much higher with over 600 injured in the incident. Political and civic groups in the country are now questioning the government’s decision to store explosives in a highly-populated area. The president has blamed the negligence of the team responsible for storing the explosives.
Libya: Parliament approves Unity Government to lead until December elections
On 10 March, the parliament voted in favour of Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah and his cabinet; the new government will lead Libya to elections on 24 December. PM Dbeibah secured votes of 121 of the 132 lawmakers. The decision has been welcomed as a positive step towards unifying the country as Libya has a unified government for the first time in seven years and a decade of chaos and dividing conflicts.
Ethiopia: The US condemns “ethnic cleansing” in the Tigray region
On 10 March, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the developments in the Tigray region and called it an act of “ethnic cleansing” hours after the Ethiopian deputy chief of mission in the US resigned in protest. The US pushed for the need of security forces who “will not abuse the human rights of the people of Tigray, or commit acts of ethnic cleansing which we’ve seen in western Tigray.” On 11 March, Amhara region’s spokesperson denied the allegations made by Antony Blinken, calling it “propaganda” and said that the very few had been displaced from the region during the conflict.
Europe and the Americas This Week
The UK: Boris Johnson responds to EU’s claim on a ban of vaccines
On 10 March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson commented on the European Council President’s statement regarding the ban on the export of vaccines. He clarified that the UK has not blocked the sale of vaccines to other countries and expressed the country’s opposition to vaccine nationalism. The Foreign Office also called upon an official of the EU to explain the incorrect statements made by the president.
The UK: Northern Ireland Official to visit the US
On 11 March, the BBC reported that a senior official from Northern Ireland will be sent to the US to build relations with the country amidst rising EU-UK tensions. The decision was made at a time when the UK has extended an exemption on the transport of goods from Great Britain to Northern Irish Supermarkets. President Biden has spoken for Ireland and raised questions regarding its situation post-Brexit.
The US: Trial of George Floyd case
On 13 March, the city of Minneapolis agreed to pay the family of George Floyd USD 27 million to settle the case against the police for its use of violence is restraining George during his arrest. Council members met discreetly to discuss the payout and unanimously voted in favour of it. The settlement will include an amount of USD 500,000 for the South Minneapolis community which has been blocked since the death of George Floyd.
The US: House of representatives approve $1.9 trillion deal
On 10 March, the house of representatives approved the USD 1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill. The bill has finally reached the President’s office for final approval. The bill provides USD 1400 stimulus payments to American individuals, weekly unemployment benefits of USD 300 and utilizing USD 125 billion and USD 40 billion for reopening of schools and universities respectively. The bill will also provide help to struggling restaurants and frontline workers.
Mexico: Women’s day protests turn violent
On 8 March, women in Mexico took to the streets to express discontent over the violence suffered by them in the country on a day-to-day basis. The women marched on the streets and showcased photos or names of rapists, abusers and other harassers. The protestors are angry with the government’s lax behaviour and the President’s support for a politician who has been accused of rape. The crowd turned violent and threatened to “burn everything.”
Brazil: Ex-President Lula to return to politics
On 8 March, the Brazilian Supreme Court announced that the former President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was not guilty in the criminal cases filed against him. The development now enables him to stand elections in the upcoming Presidential elections in 2022. His conviction in corruption cases in 2017 threw him off the presidential election race in 2018 but the recent judgement will form a basis for his political comeback; making the present President’s return challenging.
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