East Asia This Year
By Sukanya Bali and Avishka Ashok
China: Economy surges after Coronavirus slump
On 12 October, China’s National Bureau of Statistics announced an economic growth of 4.9 per cent in July to September quarter compared with the period last year. It amounts to roughly six per cent pace of growth pre-pandemic. The retail sales climbed to 3.3 per cent while the industrial production rose to 6.9 per cent. China’s September exports grew by 9.9 per cent and imports by 13.2 per cent as compared to September of last year. “On the whole, China’s economy was primarily driven by domestic demand,” a spokeswoman for the National Bureau of Statistics said. In the first three months of 2020, China’s economy shrank by 6.8 per cent due to nationwide lockdowns to combat the spread of Covid-19. It was the first time China’s economy contracted since it started recording quarterly economic data back in 1992.
China: CPC releases roadmap for the next 15 years
On 3 November, the Chinese Communist Party made public a roadmap for development in China for the next 15 years. On 29 October, it also concluded an annual four-day conclave. It was the fifth plenary session of the 19th CPC Central Committee. The committee adopted proposals to formulate the “14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) for National Economic and Social Development and the Long-Range Objectives Through the Year 2035.” The proposal sets a blueprint for China’s economic growth and social development in the coming years and has a central focus on technological self-sufficiency.
China: The Chang’e-5 and a success story in Space
On 17 December, China’s lunar probe Chang’e-5, carrying samples of rocks and soil from the far side of the moon, landed safely in the northern Inner Mongolia region. The China National Space Administration (CNSA) director Zhang Kejian declared the mission a success.
China: The US TikTok
On 7 August, US President Trump issued an executive order banning any transactions with the Chinese owners of TikTok and WeChat, starting in 45 days. On 14 August, he signed an executive order giving ByteDance 90 days to sell its TikTok business in the US. Later on 19 September, Trump supported a deal in principle, in which Oracle and Walmart will partner with Tiktok, that would allow TikTok to continue its operations in the US. In November, the US Court of Appeals set 14 December and 28 December for ByteDance and the Trump administration respectively to file motions and other documents in the case. On 7 December, a US District Judge granted a preliminary injunction blocking the US Commerce Department from imposing restrictions on TikTok which would effectively bar its use in the US.
China: Tariffs on Australia
In November, China’s commerce ministry imposed tariffs on wine imported from Australia and said these were temporary anti-dumping measures to prevent subsidized imports of Australian wine. Tariffs range from 107 per cent to 212 per cent. China is the largest buyer for Australia’s wine exports, accounting for 39 per cent in the first nine months of 2020, according to Wine Australia. Amid political tensions in 2020, Beijing had also imposed tariffs on other Australian imports including coal, sugar, barley and lobsters. Both countries reached the lowest point after Australia pushed for investigations into the origins of coronavirus.
Taiwan: Taipei chooses independence
On 11 January, Taiwan held elections for 113 seats in the Legislative Yuan alongside the Presidential Elections. President Tsai Ing-wen from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which advocates sovereignty of Taiwan from China, won a second term with a landslide victory. 57 per cent of the 19.3 million eligible voters chose the DPP over the Kuomintang (KMT) which was in favour of building stronger economic relations with China to boost its economy. The DPP promoted its pro-independence policies in the background of the Hong Kong protests which changed the perception of millions of Taiwanese. Energy, economic Policies and same-sex marriages were other key issues of the campaign. On 7 March, post the Presidential Election, the KMT held the Chairmanship by-election. Johnny Chiang, who backed party reform and changes to the cross-strait relations, was elected as the President with 84,860 votes.
Japan: End of Abe; Yoshihide Suga the new Prime Minister
On 14 September, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) elected a new President of the Party after former President Shinzo Abe resigned on 28 August citing health reasons. Yoshihide Suga, then Chief Cabinet Secretary, became the new Prime Minister, as he won the election with ease as most voting members from the party endorsed him. Suga has taken over from Abe at a crucial time when the country is going through a rough patch economically. He considers the following as primary issues: economic recovery, structural reforms, relations with China and South Korea and a review of the constitution.
South Korea: Elections post-electoral reforms
On 15 April, South Korea held its 21st Legislative Elections for all the 300 seats of the National Assembly. This was the first election that took place after the Electoral Reform Bill was passed in December 2019. According to the reforms, 30 seats which would have been elected through Proportional Representation (PR) method would now be assigned through the new compensatory basis. The voting age was also lowered to 18 from 19 years. This led many parties such as the Democratic Party and the United Future Party, to establish satellite parties to win more seats through PR. The Democratic Party and its satellite, the Platform Party, won the elections by taking over 180 seats out of 300 seats of the National Assembly. The Democratic Party which single-handedly won 163 seats is the only party to do so since 1960.
Australia: Report on Afghanistan war crimes released
On 19 November, the Inspector-General of the Australian Defense Force Afghanistan Inquiry Report shed light on the war crimes committed by Australian soldiers during the war in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016. The investigation in 2016 and submitted evidence of at least 39 murders of Afghan civilians and prisoners by the Australian Special Forces. After the report was submitted, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a special investigation into the report’s findings. Two soldiers were sacked, and 13 others have been served dismissal notices. Afghanistan reacted to the report and claimed the crimes to be inexcusable but also praised the efforts of Australia to look into the actions of its soldiers and called it a welcome step that would pave the road to justice.
New Zealand: The Christchurch attack followup
On 27 August, the Christchurch gunman who killed 51 people in two mosques was given a life imprisonment sentence without the possibility of parole by Justice Cameron Mander. This is the first time such a harsh punishment has been imposed in New Zealand. During the hearing, 90 survivors and family members recounted the horrors of the attack. The accused, however, showed no signs of remorse over his actions and continued disrespecting the victims and smirked at the proceedings of the court. On 8 December, the Royal Commission of Inquiry report was released for public viewing. The report observed that the country’s security agencies mostly anticipate acts of terror from Islamist terrorists and that there were no proper checks on firearm licenses. The report also recommended new security and intelligence agency, counter-terrorism minister and funding for research into New Zealand centred extremism. It suggested having anti-terror and hate-speech laws and workplace diversity for the public sector. The PM promised to establish a ministry of ethnic communities that would improve the security agencies’ abilities to recognize and restrain hate crimes and launch an early intervention body to help people who show signs of radicalization.
Southeast Asia This Year
By Lokendra Sharma
Myanmar: The NLD returns to power after the elections
On 8 November, general elections were held in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi led National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide, defeating the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). After the victory, the NLD also reached out to the ethnic parties inviting them to join the government.
Singapore: Another election, same results
On 10 July, general elections were held in Singapore. The People’s Action Party led by Lee Hsien Loong, which has been ruling since 1959, retained power by winning 83 of the 93 seats. Its vote share, however, dwindled from 70 per cent in 2015 elections to 61.2 per cent. The opposition Workers’ Party (WP) won 10 seats; its best performance so far. Pritam Singh from the WP was appointed as the Leader of the Opposition; a first in Singapore’s history.
Thailand: A year of pro-democracy protests
On 21 February, Thailand’s Constitutional Court dissolved the pro-democracy Future Forward Party (FFP). Third largest in terms of parliamentary seat share, the FFP was popular among the youth and its disbandment sparked immediate protests. The protests, however, waned with the spreading pandemic and ensuing lockdowns. In June, protests again erupted when an exiled Thai pro-democracy activist went missing in Cambodia. The protests have been primarily led by the youth, and have continued for more than five months. The protestors have raised three main demands. First, the resignation of the Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief who seized power in the 2014 military coup. Second, a new constitution replacing the military-drafted constitution of 2017. Third, reforming the monarchy and bringing it under constitutional limits. No demands have been met by the Prayut government even as it has proposed to form a national unity panel to solve the political conflict.
Southeast and East Asia: Historic trade deal RCEP signed
On 15 November, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade deal was signed by the 10 ASEAN countries plus Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea at a virtual summit hosted by Vietnam. The signatory countries cover a third of world population and global GDP, making it the largest trade deal till date. India, which was part of the negotiations for the deal since 2013, opted out in November 2019 due to concerns over Chinese imports and the ‘rules of origin’. The RCEP countries have adopted common rules of origin, harmonizing trade and supply chains within the trading bloc. The deal would have to be ratified by six ASEAN and three non-ASEAN members and is expected to enter into force by the end of 2021.
Malaysia: A year of political crisis
On 1 March, Malaysian politician Muhyiddin Yassin took an oath and became the eighth Prime Minister. In February, the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu) withdrew support from the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition. Short of majority in the Parliament, Mahathir Mohamad, who became the PM following victory in the 2018 general elections, resigned on 24 February. The ruling Perikatan Nasional coalition led by the current PM Yassin enjoys a razor-thin majority in the parliament. It has been a source of instability since the formation of government in the midst of the pandemic in March. On 28 October, the Malaysian King requested the lawmakers to support the budget to be tabled by the Yassin government. The budget, which was being seen as a vote of confidence for Yassin, was finally approved by the Parliament on 15 December by a slim majority, ending months of political instability.
Indonesia: Widespread protests over a new law
In October, thousands of Indonesians protested in Jakarta and other parts of the country against the controversial ‘omnibus law’. The bill was passed with the support of seven out of nine parties. It relaxes the existing labour, business and environmental laws; according to the government, these measures will boost the economy hard hit by the pandemic. The bill was opposed by a coalition of 15 activist groups including different trade unions. The protestors have demanded the revocation of the law which they say would cut down wages, undermine job security, remove provisions like sick leave among others and also harm the environment. 35 investment firms also wrote to the government raising concerns over the law’s adverse impact on the environment. The protests have since petered out, even as the Joko Widodo led government has refused to back down.
The Philippines: Two bomb explosions claim many lives
On 24 August, the Philippines was hit by twin explosions which claimed the lives of 14 people and injured 75 others. The bombs exploded in the Jolo town of Sulu province which is a stronghold of Abu Sayyaf militants. First one was a homemade bomb on a parked motorcycle and killed five soldiers and four civilians. The second one was a suicide bombing in which a female attacker detonated herself; it killed a soldier and wounded several others. A third unexploded bomb was found in the public market later. It was suspected that the attack was masterminded by Mundi Sawadjaan, who is a bomb expert with the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group; this group has pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State. It is one of the most violent terrorist organizations in the region and is responsible for the various bombing, beheadings and kidnapping. The Philippines military is in the midst of a months-long offensive against the group.
South Asia This Year
By Sourina Bej, Akriti Sharma and Abigail Fernandez
India: New Delhi and Washington conduct two-plus-two dialogue
On 27 October, India and the US concluded the two-plus-two dialogue. Both sides signed several agreements including the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement; MOU for Technical Cooperation in Earth Observations and Earth Sciences, and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and extension of the bilateral MOU concerning cooperation with the Global Center for Nuclear Energy Partnership in India. They reiterated the importance of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, the rule-based order, and freedom of navigation.
India: The Malabar naval exercise
On 20 November, Japan, Australia, India, and the US concluded the Malabar Naval Exercise. On 6 November, the first phase was conducted off the coast of Visakhapatnam in the Bay of Bengal with a focus on anti-submarine and anti-air warfare operations. The second phase took place from 17-20 November in the Arabian Sea. The exercise reflected the “commitment of the participating countries to support free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific as well as rule-based international order”, the Indian Navy said in a statement.
India: LAC stand-off with China
On 18 December, India and China agreed to hold the ninth round of talks over the LAC at the 20th meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC). On 16 June, 20 Indian troops died during a stand-off with Chinese troops. Since June, there has been a heavy deployment of troops in the Galwan Valley. Eight rounds of military and diplomatic talks happened, but no concrete plan of disengagement has been achieved so far. Both sides have been accusing each other of intruding across the LAC.
India: Foreign Secretary’s visit to the neighbouring countries
On 26 November, Foreign Secretary of India Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Nepal. On 10 November, he visited the Maldives and reviewed the major infrastructural projects, provided aid for the Greater Male Connectivity Project and the COVID-19 situation. On 18 August, he visited Bangladesh and met the PM Sheikh Hasina. These visits were aimed at enhancing bilateral relations and cooperation on the COVID-19 vaccine.
India: The anti-CAA protests
On 10 January, the government announced the enforcement of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Earlier, on 19 December 2019, the Rajya Sabha passed the law with 125 MPs voting in favour of it and 99 against it. The Act seeks to pave the way for citizenship for Buddhist, Sikh, Christian, Parsi, and Hindu immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, who have lived in India without documentation. Protests broke out across the country; the protestors called the bill an assault on India’s constitution and demanded its withdrawal.
India: Local elections in J&K
On 23 December, the results of the J&K District Development Council (DDC) were declared by the JK Election Commission. The People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) won 110 seats. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged out as the single-largest party with 75 seats. Independent candidates won 50 seats, while the Indian National Congress won 26. DDC elections marked the restart of political activity in J&K after the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019.
India: Farmers protest across the country
On 17 September, Lok Sabha passed the farmers’ laws. Since 26 November, farmers from Haryana and Punjab have been protesting against three farm acts – the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, the Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act. On 8 December, the farmers met with the Union Home Minister Amit Shah to negotiate over the agricultural laws. However, the meetings are yet to produce a breakthrough. The farmers’ said, “they would settle for nothing less than the scrapping of the legislations.” So far, the five-round of talks with the government has remained inconclusive.
India: Naga peace talks in the doldrums
On 13 August, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isaak-Muivah faction) released the original copy of the confidential “Framework Agreement” (FA) signed by the Prime Minister of India in 2015 in the lines of achieving a peace settlement between the Naga separatist groups and the Republic of India. The release comes in the backdrop of growing mistrust with interlocutor Governor of Nagaland Ravi whom the group accused of doctoring the FA and creating a rift between Nagaland’s political groups. On 14 August 2020, the NSCN Chief has stated never to “merge with India but coexist” during the Naga Independence Day celebrations and fight till the wrong of the interlocutor is undone. This had put the decades-long peace negotiation to the Naga conflict in the doldrums. Governor Ravi has taken a strong position where he considers the demands of the NSCN (IM) of a separate flag and constitution as “imaginary”.
Sri Lanka: Elections and the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa
On 5 August, the Parliamentary elections were held that witnessed the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Sri Lanka People’s Front, secured two-thirds of seats needed to form the government and carry out its promised constitutional changes. The party won 145 of the 225 seats, plus five more seats from its allies. The opposition party – United National Party (UNP) led by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was routed, having lost all but one of the 106 seats it held in its outgoing parliament. The main opposition party in the Parliament now is the Samagi Jana Balawegaya led by Sajith Premadasa (son of Ranasinghe Premadasa, a former president assassinated in 1993) with 54 seats. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) could secure only ten seats in the new Parliament.
Sri Lanka: 20th Amendment passed
On 22 October, the 20th Amendment to the constitution was passed after a two-day long debate in the Parliament. 156 of the 225 parliamentarians voted in favour of the amendment. The amendment repeals most of the provisions of the 19th Amendment, which was passed in 2015. The 20th amendment provides expansive and unrestrained power to the Executive President and reduces that of the Prime Minister. The amendment faced resistance from the opposition political parties. 39 petitions were filed in the Supreme Court by the opposition leaders and civil society groups.
The Maldives: Defence agreement with the US
On 10 September, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for South and Southeast Asia Reed Werner and Maldivian Defence Minister Mariya Didi signed the Framework for the US Department of Defence-Maldives Ministry of Defence and Security Relationship. Both sides reiterated their support for free and open Indo-Pacific. “the Framework sets forth both countries’ intent to deepen engagement and cooperation in support of maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean, and marks an important step forward in the defence partnership.” said the US Department of Defence.
Bangladesh: A moment of pride as the last span of the biggest Padma Bridge is installed
On 13 December, Bangladesh inaugurated the completion of a major part of the main structure of the multi-purpose Padma Bridge. After defying considerable delays and funding crunch, the last span of the project was also installed. The Padma Bridge, which cost Taka 301.93 billion, is the largest development project in the country and the 6.15 km long bridge will be directly connected to 21 districts thereby facilitating the movement of goods and people.
Bangladesh: Protests against sexual violence
On 6 October, hundreds of Bangladeshis staged protests and scuffled with police as anger increased over the instances of sexual violence towards women. The protests in Dhaka and elsewhere erupted after a video emerged that showed several men stripping and attacking a woman from a backward community in the southern district of Noakhali. Before being taken down, the clip was shared multiple times on Facebook, sparking outrage online in the country where justice against sexual assault is still a distant dream. According to the local human rights organization Ain-o-Salish Kendra (ASK), between January and September 2020 nearly 1,000 rape cases, including 208 gang rapes were reported in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh: Relocation of the Rohingya refugees
On 3 December, amid many criticisms from the international human rights group, Bangladesh initiated the process of relocating Rohingya refugees to a remote, flood-prone island, Bhashan Char. Many see Bhasan Char as an “island detention center,” noting its isolation. The relocation of the Rohingya refugees is much needed to ease their overcrowding in the camps of Cox’s Bazar. Bangladeshi authorities are imminently relocating between 1,000 to 3,000 Rohingya refugees. Bhasan Char is a slit of land that emerged from the sea less than 20 years ago and has never been inhabited before. Bangladesh has identified this island to accommodate nearly 1 million refugees after they were uprooted by successive waves of violence across the border in Myanmar. In 2017, more than 730,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh following a military clampdown on the minority community.
Nepal: Border row with India, with a new map
On 19 May, a border dispute with India heated up after Nepal’s cabinet endorsed a new political map showing Lipulekh, Kalapani, and Limpiyadhura under its territory. The announcement by Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali came weeks after tensions began with India over the construction of a road close to its border. Nepal’s ruling Nepal Communist Party lawmakers also tabled a special resolution in Parliament demanding the return of Nepal’s territory in Kalapani, Limpiyadhura, and Lipulekh. The Lipulekh pass is a far western point near Kalapani, a disputed border area between Nepal and India. Both India and Nepal claim Kalapani as an integral part of their territory – India as part of Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district and Nepal as part of Dharchula district. The move by Nepal was in protest against the recently-inaugurated road section in Pithoragarh district in Uttarakhand, which India has claimed to be within its territory.
Nepal: Parliament dissolved amid infighting within the ruling party
On 21 December, Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli got the country’s President to dissolve the Parliament, a controversial move amidst a prolonged tussle for power between him and his ruling coalition partner Nepal Communist (MC) leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda”. President Bidya Devi Bhandari dissolved Parliament’s House of Representatives at Oli’s recommendation and announced the mid-term general election in April-May. This decision has been termed “unconstitutional, impulsive, and autocratic” by the opposition and his own party members within the Nepal Communist Party (NCP). Expressing dissatisfaction over Oli’s move to dissolve the House, seven ministers, belonging to the Prachanda faction, announced their resignation in a joint statement issued during a press conference here. The dissolution comes six months of leadership tussle between Oli and Prachanda over the question of the passing of the prime ministerial position. While Oli has remained reluctant to relinquish power, the resistance from NCP and cry for his resignation has simultaneously grown with many favouring Prachanda as their leader.
Pakistan: Rise of the Opposition with the Pakistan Democratic Movement
The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) was formed in September, a coalition of 11 political parties against the incumbent PTI government. The movement has brought together the two-mainstream, but rival political parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and the Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML-N) currently headed Maryam Nawaz. The PDM claims that the 2018 General Election of Pakistan was rigged by the Pakistani military as voiced by Nawaz Sharif who claimed that there is a ‘state above the state.’ The slogan of the PDM’ Vote ko izzat do’ which in Urdu which means ‘respect the sanctity of the vote’ clearly reflects their narrative. Over the last four months, the PDM organized massive rallies across the country starting from Panjab’s Gujranwala then in Karachi, Quetta, Peshawar, Multan and Lahore. They are planning to hold a “long march” to Islamabad in January 2021, aiming to oust the government.
Pakistan: Protests against gender violence and the #auratmarch2020
Aurat march was held in Karachi, Multan, Lahore and Quetta whereas Aurat Azadi March was held in Islamabad, Sukkur and Multan in March. The marches were attended by women, children, men and transgender people. The theme this year was ‘Khudmukhtari (autonomy) and Violence (both sexual and economic)’. The women rallied against the patriarchy and how it is a catalyst for the ongoing high rates of sexual and economic violence. However as expected, hard-line conservatives in Pakistan have criticized the Aurat March, some even taking it to mainstream media while on social media alleging Pakistani feminists of encouraging un-Islamic vulgarity by raising inappropriate slogans.
Pakistan: Turbulence in Pak-Saudi relations and the OIC
In 2020, diplomatic relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were strained as multiple issues threatened established political alliances in the Gulf region. Pakistan expected Riyadh to extend support while dealing with India over J&K; Islamabad had requested a supportive meeting with the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). However, Saudi Arabia turned down the request after which Pakistan repeated its demand, which in turn resulted in Riyadh calling in a $1 billion loan. Consequently, Pakistan repaid the loan with a new loan. However, the two sides nevertheless sought to enhance the “longstanding Pakistan-Saudi Arabia fraternal ties” amid the deteriorating relations.
Pakistan: The FATF rush sees no results
Pakistan in 2020 demonstrated much progress in its attempt to reach the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) requirement of implementing the 27-point Action Plan. However, the rush was not sufficient to get off the watchdog’s ‘Grey List.’ Following an extension given in October 2019 to February 2020, the FATF decided to maintain Pakistan’s status on its ‘grey list’ until June, when the next review will take place. Islamabad got an unexpected breather after the FATF temporarily postponed all mutual evaluations and followup deadlines in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this period witnessed political tussles and hidden agendas. In October, the FATF found that Pakistan has successfully complied with 21 out of 27 points of action and decided to keep the country on its ‘grey list’ until February 2021 urging swift completion of its full action plan.
Pakistan: Increasing anti-India narrative at International forums
In 2020, Pakistan has taken its anti-India narrative more aggressively at various international forums. It began when Pakistan released a dossier containing irrefutable “evidence” of India’s alleged sponsorship of terrorism in the country, calling on the international community to take notice and make efforts for peace and stability in South Asia. The same dossier was then presented to the United Nations and UN Secretary-General to ask India to stop its’ illegal and aggressive activities.’ Similarly, the dossier was presented to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) while urging the group to use their political influence and economic power to prevent India from committing ‘state sponsorship of terrorism against Pakistan.’
Afghanistan: US-Taliban agreement in Doha
In February, the US and the Taliban signed an “agreement for bringing peace” to Afghanistan in Doha, Qatar. The agreement called for the removal of the United States and Coalition forces from Afghanistan within 14 months if the Taliban upheld the deal. Under the agreement, the Taliban agreed not to allow al-Qaeda or any other extremist group to operate on Afghan soil. The signing of the agreement was preceded by a seven-day “reduction in violence”, and not a “ceasefire”, a term the Taliban objected to as they were not ready to commit. Further, the agreement states that the US will start diplomatic discussions with the United Nations to remove members of the Taliban from the “sanctions list.” The main issue regarding the signing of this agreement was that the Afghan government was not a part of the negotiations, nor was it a signatory to the final agreement.
Afghanistan: Spiralling issue of violence and targeted killings
Through 2020, apart from the surge in Islamic State terrorist attacks, violence continued across Afghanistan as the United States increased airstrikes and raids targeting the Taliban, while the Taliban continued to carry out attacks on Afghan government targets. The Taliban have also carried out high-profile attacks across the country, including in Kabul. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) report, nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace. The Taliban was accountable for 45 per cent of civilian casualties while government troops were responsible for 23 per cent and the United States-led international forces were responsible for two per cent. Further, the country also witnessed the surge in targeted assassinations in the national and provincial capitals where attacks were focussed on select assassinations of government officials and pro-government leaders.
Central Asia This Year
By Abigail Fernandez
Nagorno-Karabakh: Fighting breaks outs leading to a ceasefire
In September, Armenia and Azerbaijan report dozens of casualties, both military and civilian, after fighting erupted following months of increased tensions, beginning the worst fighting to hit the region since the 1990s. Armenia said Azerbaijan fired the first shots. However, Azerbaijan said it was launching a “counter-offensive” in response to Armenian aggression. For more than six weeks, fighting and displacement continued in Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding areas. However, in November, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia signed a nine-point- ceasefire agreement to end the intense fighting under which Russian peacekeepers were deployed along the front line. Further, it has been agreed that Azerbaijan will continue to hold on to areas of Nagorno-Karabakh that it has taken during the conflict, while Armenia agreed to withdraw from several other adjacent areas in the next few weeks. The peace deal sparked celebrations in Azerbaijan and protests in Armenia, where demonstrators briefly occupied government buildings.
Kyrgyzstan: Worst political crisis as protests took to the streets
Kyrgyzstan witnessed one of its worst political crises in decades when protests took to the streets in early October causing then-President Sooronbai Jeenbekov to declare a state of emergency in the capital, permitting the military to step in after clashes broke out between supporters of rival politicians. Subsequently, Jeenbekov resigned after which Sadyr Japarov, who was in detention but freed by protestors was named prime minister placing an end to the weeks of turmoil and unrest. Protesters had taken to the street to contest the outcome of Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary elections, although the protesters succeeded in pushing the Central Election Committee to annul the outcome of the elections, the country was thrown into a political crisis leaving the citizens’ fundamental human rights at risk.
The Middle East This Year
By Rashmi Ramesh
The Abraham Accords: A new chapter in diplomacy
On 28 January, President Trump announced the Middle East Peace Plan, also known as the “Deal of the Century.” The plan authorized Israel to expand its occupation and aimed at recognizing its claims over the Golan Heights, Jordan Valley, Israeli settlements and Jerusalem. It also stated an offer for ‘a viable path’ to Palestinian statehood but proposed a demilitarized Palestine.
The Abraham Accords is a followup of the Deal of the Century. An initiative to normalize the relations between Israel and the Arab world, the Accords were first signed between Israel and UAE-Bahrain on 15 September. The most recent signatories of the deal are Sudan and Morocco. Projected as one of the biggest diplomatic efforts of the Trump administration, the normalization deal is set to bolster the defence ties between the US, Arab countries and Israel. Trade, tourism is also set to expand in a bigger fashion due to the normalization of relations. Iran and Turkey criticized the deal for sidelining the Palestinian cause and supporting the Jewish occupation.
Iran: Regional rivalry, assassinations, and internal issues
Iran witnessed a turmoil-ridden year characterized by its rivalry with the US and compelling domestic issues. 2020 began with the assassination of the decorated officer Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the chief of IRGC’s Quds Force, the architect of Iran’s involvement in various parts of the Middle East and North Africa. The assassination in January created a war-like situation between Iran and the US, but Iran took more cautious steps and inflicted material damage on the US assets in Iraq. Over the past one-year Iranian attacks on the Green Zone in Baghdad have increased, forcing the US to reduce its personnel in the Embassy as well significantly reduce the troops in Iraq. The Popular Mobilization Unit, supported by Iran, influenced the Iraqi Parliament to a larger extent, to pass a resolution calling for a withdrawal of all the foreign troops stationed in Iraq.
In November, Mohsen Fakrizadeh, top nuclear scientist of the country was assassinated allegedly by Israel, once again raising the tensions between Iran and Israel and the threat of further non-compliance to JCPOA. The hardliners in Iran are in loggerheads with the moderate cabinet led by President Hassan Rouhani and are pushing for further enrichment of uranium. Iran also faced economic woes fuelled by increased US sanctions and COVID-19. The US also effectively blocked a $5 billion emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund, that Iran applied for, to battle the pandemic. Unemployment and high rates of inflation continue to bother the Iranian population.
Yemen: The greatest humanitarian crisis
In November, the UN Security held a briefing on the humanitarian situation in Yemen. In a strong statement, the UN Humanitarian Relief Coordinator remarked that the “Yemenis are not going hungry, they are being starved. The parties to the conflict, the Security Council members, donors, humanitarian organizations and others should do everything to stop this.” The Chief of the World Food Programme highlighted the need to step up relief measures to try and stop the impending famine in the country. Yemen is in the midst of a continuing proxy war and failing negotiations. Iran and Saudi Arabia-led coalition have been waging a proxy war in Yemen. Aimed at securing regional domination, this has reached a state of stalemate. As a result, Yemen remains embroiled in violence that is cyclical in nature. The UN Special Envoy to Yemen opines that the “relatively calm situation” may soon come to an end, as there is a probability of escalation of violence shortly.
The battle for Idlib: Ceasefire between Russia and Turkey
In March, Turkey and Russia agreed to a ceasefire in Syria’s north-western province Idlib, as an attempt to avoid a major escalation. The battle for Idlib started once again in April 2019, when the Syria-Russia backed forces attacked the last rebel-held province. In February, 36 Turkish soldiers were killed in an offensive led by the Russia-backed Syrian regime. The Turkish response to this offensive raised speculation of a direct armed conflict between Russia and Turkey. The ceasefire agreement negotiated directly between Putin and Erdogan stated that it would be applicable to the entire line of contact; a security corridor of six kilometres north and six kilometres south of Idlib’s M4 motorway will be established, and joint Russian-Turkish patrols will be conducted along with the M4 from 15 March. However, in recent months, the Syrian regime and Russian forces have continued attacks on the province. Russia has held the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), a terrorist outfit, responsible for breaking the ceasefire and prompting retaliatory strikes.
Israel: Continuing political instability
On 23 December, Israel’s parliament was dissolved, after Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government failed to pass a budget. This has pushed the country to its fourth election in just two years. The third consecutive election held in April 2019 gave a fractured mandate, thereby the unity government established by Netanyahu and Benny Gantz coming to power. The government collapsed, as Netanyahu refused to endorse the spending plans for 2021. Netanyahu’s Likud Party is also facing internal clashes. Senior leader Gideon Saar defected from the party in December, stating that he would contest the next elections by forming a new party. This gives rise to a three-front contest in Israel and a contest for the conservatives’ votes, as both Netanyahu and Saar share a similar vote base. Israel has also seen steady anti-government protests throughout the year. The main reasons are said to be the corruption cases against Netanyahu and the manner in which the pandemic was managed.
Lebanon: Year of political turmoil
On 4 August, a powerful explosion in a warehouse in the Port of Beirut resulted in the death of more than 200 people and thousands of others rendered injured. The blast was not only a catastrophe but also paved the way for political turmoil in the country. Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned shortly after the blasts, citing “deeply-rooted corruption” and an inefficient political system. Mustapha Adib, Diab’s successor, resigned within a month blaming an unbreakable political stalemate, especially by Iran-backed Shiite group Hezbollah. In September, French President Macron visited Beirut and attempted at finding political consensus. He offered a draft proposal to the different political blocks of Lebanon which emphasized upon four issues- addressing COVID-19 and humanitarian situation; rebuilding Beirut; introducing reforms in various sectors of the government; and conducting elections within a maximum period of one year. However, the formation of a new government in 2020 may not see the light of the day. On 23 December, PM-designate Saad Hariri warned of “clear complications hindering the birth of the new leadership.”
Africa This Year
By Apoorva Sudhakar
Ethiopia: Tensions with Tigray escalate to large scale conflict
In November, the Ethiopian government launched a military offensive against its northern region, Tigray, leading to a full-blown conflict which lasted three weeks. Prior to the offensive, Ethiopia accused Tigray of attacking its military bases. In retaliation, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed also announced a six-month emergency and communications blackout. On 28 November, Ahmed claimed victory over Tigray; he said the Ethiopian army had captured Tigray’s capital, Mekelle. However, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front refuted these claims. As a result of the conflict, more than 50,000 Ethiopians have fled to Sudan. Tensions between the Ethiopian government and Tigray escalated after the region conducted its regional elections in September. In June, Ahmed cited the ongoing pandemic and announced that general elections scheduled for August would be postponed to 2021.
Libya: A year of fragile ceasefires
In October, the warring sides in Libya signed a permanent ceasefire following UN-brokered talks in Geneva. The UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and the rival government Libyan National Army (LNA) were engaged in conflict for more than a year. Prior to the October ceasefire, the GNA and LNA have signed two ceasefire agreements in 2020; both were breached. However, since November, both sides participated in talks hosted by the UN to arrive; they discussed forming a transitional government that would lead up to presidential and parliamentary elections in December 2021. Involvement of external actors like Turkey, Russia, Egypt, supporting rival sides has made adhering to ceasefires difficult. In December, the UN confirmed the presence of at least 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries in Libya.
Mali: Protests, a coup and an interim government
In August, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the then President, resigned from his position following a dispute regarding promotions at a military base. Simultaneously, civilians were engaged in widespread anti-government protests amid increasing security threats, deteriorating economy and the pandemic. Imam Mahmoud Dicko led the opposition groups on June 5; later, the protesters were recognized under a single banner called the June 5 Movement – Rally of Patriotic Movement or the M5-RFP. In September, the military junta appointed a retired colonel as the interim President and subsequently appointed a transitional government in October. However, since November, several political parties and civil society workers criticized the National Transitional Council (CNT); they allege that “the military has carved out for itself the lion’s share of the council’s 121 seats, taking 22 of them.”
The Horn of Africa: Locusts swarm endangering millions
Since the early half of 2020, the Horn of Africa has been ravaged by locusts swarms. In January, the FAO called for an estimated USD 76 million to combat the rapid spread of this pest; however, the amount kept increasing. In June, the FAO predicted the second phase of the outbreak. In December, the FAO sought an additional USD 40 million for surveillance of the pest in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. The FAO Director-General cited that more than 35 million people suffer from acute food insecurity in these five countries. According to him, another 3.5 million would be subjected to the same if adequate measures are not implemented.
Across Africa: Battle for the ballots as dozens of African countries hold elections
The year witnessed several instances of electoral violence, both structural and physical. In Guinea and Ivory Coast, the incumbents citing the passing of new Constitutions, contested and won controversial third terms. The incumbent leaders of both the countries, who had completed two terms, claimed that the new constitutions reset the clock making them eligible for a third term. As the Opposition cried foul, civilians took to the streets in both the countries resulting in several deaths. Similarly, Uganda, which held its elections in January 2021, was mired in electoral violence in November after opposition candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine, was arrested twice in a month. Violence following his arrest left at least 50 dead. In countries like Tanzania and Burundi, the internet and social media were blocked before the election day.
Europe This Year
By Harini Madhusudan
Brexit: A year of ambiguities in the transition talks
In December, the UK and EU reached a tentative agreement, to avoid a hard Brexit beginning 1 January 2021. The anticipation of what may happen to the deal at the end of the transition period was on a knife-edge for 11 months, after missing a string of immovable deadlines. Major issues in the negotiation process included fishing rights, access to markets, ‘level playing field’ for businesses, regulatory alignments, financial and banking access, security and law enforcement, and the Northern Ireland protocol. However, critical details would still need to be worked out.
Belarus: Elections and the protests that followed
In August, the presidential elections in Belarus led to Alexander Lukashenko’s victory for a sixth term. This was contested by the opposition Sviatlana Tsikanouskaya who falsified the results and claimed to have won 60-70 per cent share of the votes. Belarus saw its largest anti-government protests that led to violent persecution by the authorities. Multiple attempts by the international community and the local leadership failed to stop Lukashenko from assuming power in September. By October, the Belarusian government and EU officials imposed sanctions on officials from both sides. In December, protests against Alexander Lukashenko continued in Belarus and prosecutors launched criminal cases against Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other opponents of Lukashenko.
Alexi Navalny: Poisoning and the investigation process
In August, Russian opposition figure Alexi Navalny was poisoned by a nerve agent during his flight from Tomsk to Moscow, where he fell violently ill. He was shifted to a hospital in Germany after which the German government revealed that they possess evidence that he was poisoned by the Novichok Agent; evidence corroborated by the German, French, and Swedish labs. In October, OPCW reports confirmed the presence of a new type of Novichok, which was not included in the list of controlled chemicals of the Chemical Weapons Convention. In December, Navalny, who is still recovering at a secret location in Germany, posed as a senior official from Russia’s National Security Council tasked with carrying out an analysis of the poisoning operation and got a Russian Secret agent who was tasked with tailing him, to reveal details on how he was poisoned. Bellingcat investigated the incident and released their report on the near-fatal poisoning of Navalny.
Islam and France: Terror attacks in France
In October, France faced two terrorist attacks. The first was the beheading of a teacher for showing the controversial cartoon of Charlie Hebdo to his students. The second was the knife attack by a 21-year-old Tunisian that killed three in the city of Nice. The two incidents highlighted the personalized nature of terrorism, where the perpetrators were unknown to the intelligence officials, no allegiance to a terrorist group, did not state any political agenda. Signs of radicalization, if at all visible, were expressed on social media. And they came armed with little more than knives. The French government’s response to the attacks also became a target of international criticism after President Macron’s provocative speech, and PR strategies of projecting the cartoons on public buildings, arresting four 10-year-old children, and launching an indiscriminate crackdown on French Muslim political organizations that had nothing to do with the killings. This resulted in public outrage with protests and calls to boycott French products spread around the world, diluting the response to the Islamic Extremism.
COVID-19: Coronavirus in Europe and the EU Recovery Fund
With over 500,000 deaths, the impact of the coronavirus in Europe has been overwhelming for both the government and health systems. The UK announced a tier-four lockdown, and many parts of the region are also observing resurgence in the number of cases for the third time. The European Union in the early weeks of December concluded their plans for a European Recovery Fund at the European Union Summit. It represents the first instance of large-scale EU borrowing in order to fund grants, which fundamentally means EU debt for inter-regional transfers. In the months leading to the agreement, Hungary and Poland had been blocking the funds due to a compliance clause. The 1.82 trillion-euro ($2.21 trillion) seven-year budget and recovery package is expected to come into effect from 1 January 2021.
Greece, Cyprus, and Israel: Natural Gas Agreement
In January, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel signed an agreement to build the Eastern Mediterranean Pipeline that will carry natural gas 1,900km from the Eastern Mediterranean basin to the European market. The pipeline is estimated to cost USD 8.53 billion and carry an initial 10 billion cubic meters annually, expandable to 16 billion cubic meters annually. It was a major irritant to Turkey, which saw it as an attempt to exclude it from the region’s energy abundance.
Greece and Turkey: The Migrant crisis
In February, Turkey announced that it was opening its borders to refugees bound for Europe. This triggered the biggest refugee crisis in five years. For two weeks, Turkey gave free passage on the country’s buses and trains to refugees travelling to the Greek border, during which time, Greece says it resisted more than 42,000 attempted entries at the land border and an unspecified number at sea. Greece notified Turkey that it was extending its border fence at the Evros river to secure its border against further refugee crises. On May 11, Turkey warned Greece against trespassing on Turkish soil. Both sides sent border reinforcements, displaying tensions between the two sides.
Latin America This Year
By Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Bolivia: A new election brings former Finance Minister as the President
On 18 October, a general election was held in Bolivia. The former Finance Minister, Luis Arce Catacora of the Movement for Socialism (MAS) the party was elected as the President in a landslide victory with 55 per cent of the votes. Although able to secure a majority in both chambers of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, the party was unable to gain the two-thirds majorities, on the whole, for the first time since 2009. The results of the election superseded the disputed results of the October 2019 elections and brought the party of the former President Evo Morales, back to power. Morales was forced to resign on 10 November 2019 by the military and the police of Bolivia, due to an on-going protest. The 19 days of civil protests were due to the dispute related to the election and the release of a report from the Organization of American States (OAS), which alleged irregularities in the electoral process.
Brazil: Bolsenaro adds to the anxiety against the COVID-19 vaccines
On 18 December, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsenaro warned his people in a public interview regarding the side effects of the vaccine. He stated, “In the Pfizer contract it’s clear… ‘we (Pfizer) are not responsible for any side effects.’ If you become an alligator, it’s your problem.” He also added fears such as women growing beard or men speaking with an effeminate voice as a result of the vaccine. This added to the growing anxiety among people regarding the vaccination. Brazil being one of the countries that are worst affected by the COVID-19, the health ministry is still far from a structured vaccination roll-out plan. The President, who was affected by the virus, has played down the impact comparing it to a ‘simple flu’. His current statement will further encourage the on-going anti-vaccine protest in the country.
Mexico: A new bill deepens anti-US sentiments
On 15 December, the lower house of the Parliament in Mexico had passed a bill aimed at restricting the powers of “foreign agents” operating within. The law strips foreign agents of diplomatic immunity and requires them to share any intelligence obtained. This will have an impact on the US-Mexico national security relations because this will restrict the work of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).DEA works closely with the Mexican forces in its fight against the drug cartels based in Mexico. This comes after a public uproar against the arrest of Mexico’s former Defense Minister General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda in the US by the officials in October 2020.
Venezuela: Maduro retains power through an election
On 20 December, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro dissolved the National Constituent Assembly. He stated the body which was previously formed by him was no longer needed since his re-consolidation of power after the election on 6 December. His party – the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and allied parties captured 67.6 per cent of the total 277 seats in the National Assembly. The opposition under the leadership of Juan Guaido had boycotted the elections and still refused to accept the results to be fair. The last election was in 2019, followed by a political turmoil. Guaido, stating the result to be fraudulent, declared himself as the acting President. He was supported by the US and 50 other countries and organizations such as the Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Union. But this election ensured the return of Maduro in spite of international opposition as he still enjoys the support of the military and the people due to his indigenous roots.
Chile: Referendum for a new Constitution
On 25 October, a national plebiscite was held in Chile. The referendum was regarding the drafting of a new constitution in the country. The agenda also focused on whether it should be drafted by a constitutional convention, or by a mixed constitutional convention, that comprises currently-sitting members of Parliament and directly elected citizens. A landslide victory with 78 per cent of votes made it evident that people demand a new constitution. 79 per cent of voters opted for a Constitutional Convention for drafting the new constitution. This plebiscite brings peace for the time being since the 2019 protests. On 11 April 2021, a second vote will be held to elect the members of the constitutional convention. This will be held alongside municipal and gubernatorial elections and will be followed by a third vote in 2022.
The US This Year
Year of Trump’s tantrums and disruptions
During 2020, Donald Trump was at his disruptive best – both internally and externally.
On 22 December, Trump called the USD 900 billion COVID relief bill passed by the US Congress earlier as disgraceful and refused to sign it. In a tweet, he mentioned: “I simply want to get our great people $2000, rather than the measly $600 that is now in the bill.” While the Democrats would tend to agree with Trump on this, the refusal by the President to sign the bill passed by the Congress seems to be more as a part of his recent tantrums, than any care about the “great people” of the US.
Trump is yet to accept the results of the US Presidential elections. In early November, the elections for the electoral college to elect the next US President was held. On 14 December, the electoral college met and voted in favour of Joe Biden. Trump has polled 232 votes vis-à-vis Biden’s 306. Between the election in November and the meeting of the electoral college on 14 December, Trump has refused to accept that he has lost the election. His campaign has filed a series of legal suits complaining of election fraud, without providing any substantial evidence. On 11 December, the Supreme Court rejected a petition filed by the Attorney General of Texas accusing violation of election process by the following four states: Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. On 27 November, a court of federal appeals rejected the plea from the Trump campaign that wanted to Pennsylvania not to declare Biden as the winner of the State. The Trump campaign also attempted to question the election results in individual States. On 29 November Wisconsin reconfirmed the victory of Biden in the recount; earlier, on 19 November, Georgia also upheld the election results from the State declaring Biden as the winner.
On 23 December, Trump pardoned three more, raising the number of pardons he issued to 29 during the week. The list includes his former campaign manager, his son-in-law’s father and many accused of serious war crimes.
2020 also witnessed a social upheaval in the US, in the form of the “Black Lives Matter” (BLM). The killing of an African American on 25 May in Minneapolis by the police, triggered a large movement. Though the support to the BLM has its origin in systemic issues of racial relations and economic issues relating to the minorities, Trump’s position, fuelled the fire to the movement. Instead of trying to address the issues, he fanned it by taking sides with the right-wing groups. He called the BLM as a symbol of hate, and was quoted to have stated: “Left-wing mobs have torn down statues of our founders, desecrated our memorials and carried out a campaign of violence and anarchy…Whether it is the mob on the street, or the cancel culture in the boardroom, the goal is the same: to silence dissent, to scare you out of speaking the truth and to bully Americans into abandoning their values.”
The biggest disruption of Trump came in the form of his failure to address the COVID-19. On 14 December, the US crossed 300,000 deaths due to the COVID-19. Trump refused to accept it as a health crisis and failed to take appropriate actions during the year. On 24 February 2020, he tweeted that “the coronavirus is very much under control in the USA” and later that month, he proclaimed: “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” Later it was revealed that, in an interview in March 2020, he told a senior journalist: “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.” In July 2020, he was quoted to have stated that 99 per cent of the COVID cases were “totally harmless” and that the US had lowest mortality rate. Both statements proved to be inaccurate subsequently. A positive story from the US administration in fighting the COVID virus has been the approval by the FAO on 11 December to the COVID vaccine by Pfizer-BioNtech.
Externally, the US withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty on 22 November. The treaty was signed in 2002, and has 34 countries from North American, Europe and includes Russia. Also, earlier in November, the US exited from the Paris Agreement relating to Climate Change. The agreement was signed by 188 countries after a tough and forward-looking agreement to address the negative fallouts of climate change. The US relationship with China remained rocky throughout the year, whereas Trump continued to exhibit his soft spot towards Russian President Putin. While his approach towards Iran was a destabilizing factor in the Middle East, he should be credited with a lone success in the region with what he called as the Abraham Accords.
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