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Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Japan-South Korea tension sees a ray of hope

Ashraf Qureshi. 

The protracted Japan-South Korea tension is finally seeing a thaw after straining the region’s economy and shaking an alliance that aims to keep a check on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.  

Reuters, quoting the Japanese news agency Kyodo, reported that the military and diplomatic partners intend to study plans for a joint economic program to rekindle the progress they had made under close cooperation since an attempt to bury their pasts in a 1965 treaty. 

Although government officials from both sides have refuted the news, the discussion around it has raised hopes of a possible patch up. The unmanned source from South Korean foreign ministry that denied these plans, however, confirmed the existence of communication between them to cool off the tensions.  

The joint economic program 

As per the details revealed so far, the formation of a joint plan was being considered for companies from both countries to push economic progress. Japanese believe that compensation for South Korea’s forced-laborers from World War II is presently not on the cards. To address the sensitive issue, instead of issuing compensation for the laborers, a fund is being considered to spur economic cooperation.  

The fund is to be set up by the South Korean government and businesses where Japanese companies would participate to ease the economic tensions. This will provide a face-saving for both countries against their rigid stances over their historical issues. At the same time, it will allow them to address their present economic challenges. 

Flare in the tension

Raw nerves received a jolt last year when the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to compensate some of the laborers. Things quickly got out of hand as nationalist sentiments flared in both countries, resulting in a progressive escalation that has left their partners worried. 

Japan believes that under the 1965 treaty with South Korea, all financial issues pertaining to the forced-labor in World War II have been settled, leaving no further option for their compensation. South Koreans, however, consider the terms of that agreement unfair and not adequately prepared by the leadership of that time. 

South Korean Supreme Court’s decision followed an economic response from Japan, restricting high-tech exports to South Korea. 

With several of its high-value industries under existential threat, South Korea raised the issue to a strategic level by announcing that it does not intend to renew General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), a pact that allows information sharing among the two on North Korea’s nuclear and missile activity. 

GSOMIA has been in place since 2016 and will be expiring this November. The possibility of its non-renewal has also left the United States worried as it relied upon the agreement to keep a check on North Korea. 

There have been several protests in both countries over the latest standoff and businesses that operated across borders are suffering. Already causing social misunderstandings, it can spiral into creating waves at the global level. 

A fragile but strategic alliance

The Japan-South Korea tension has placed the spotlight on the two allies’ effective check so far on North Korean militaristic designs. With even China taking a cautious approach to Pyongyang’s ambitions and using its influence on Kim Jong Un to bring it to the table with US President Donal Trump, the alliance is extremely significant. 

Japan and South Korea have long been playing the good-cop-bad-cop. Japanese approach has been to increase the pressure on North Korea. Whereas South Korea – understandably, because of the divided families over the border and more social closeness with the North – adopts a more reconciliatory attitude. Both have been equally effective. 

Post Cold War geopolitics of Asia have considerably changed with the economic rise of China. The world, as well as the Asia-Pacific, is no more divided on communist-capitalist lines. Today, South Korea finds itself closer to China than it does to Japan. Its interests are increasingly aligning with China’s maritime silk route that offers greater connectivity and better integration with global supply chains. 

Japan’s long term strategic partner, the United States, is receding into its own borders. Trump administration’s policies of discontinuing America’s role as the world’s policeman and incidents of appalling abandonment of its allies have left countries like Japan looking for alternative balancing measures. 

In such a scenario, South Korea and Japan’s willingness to partner with each other may have diminished, yet the talk of a joint economic program is an encouraging development. It will reduce the effects of an already slowing global economy, improve the region’s security and help them to bury their contentious past. 

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Pakistan’s Saudi-Iran mediation has breakthrough in sight

Hayat Bangash. 

Pakistan’s latest Saudi-Iran mediation attempt comes against the backdrop of the Muslim world’s long borne divisions on sectarian lines. While hardly any Middle Eastern country is considered part of the first world, wars and ideological conflicts have hampered their progress. The excessive spending on weapons and proxies have pushed more people below the poverty line and fueled an immigration crisis being felt the world over. 

Why Pakistan?

Pakistan, however, is bent upon changing that. After Imran Khan was elected Pakistan’s Prime Minister last year, he has been making efforts to bridge the divide. But why him and why Pakistan? The answer lies in Pakistan’s unique demographic structure. 

The country has a sizeable population of Sunni and Shia Muslims who have traditionally been living at peace with each other. Although faced with frequent attempts of flaring sectarian division, the security apparatus and social campaigns have largely been successful in maintaining a level of religious harmony.

A direct confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran would not turn out too pleasant for Pakistan. Pakistanis highly regard the religious leaders of both countries and even have an affection for their political leadership. Any conflict would directly translate into grass-root level tensions.

The latest Saudi-Iran mediation attempt

The efforts started at the recent UN General Assembly (UNGA) session where Prime Minister Khan revealed for the first time that he was involved in the Saudi-Iran mediation. The initial efforts, according to Khan, were on the request of US President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. 

Pakistan's latest Saudi-Iran mediation efforts were announced during the recent UNGA Summit (Photo by Reuters)
Pakistan’s latest Saudi-Iran mediation efforts were announced during the recent UNGA Summit. (Reuters Photo)

The revelation was welcome news for global doves since the attack on Suadi oil facilities last month had risen temperatures in Riyadh and Washington accusing Iran of upping the ante. 

What followed the UNGA efforts by Khan were his back to back visits to Saudi Arabia and Iran. Ever since there has been a cooling off of rhetoric from both sides. Reports suggest that because of Pakistan’s efforts, UAE, a Saudi ally, is moving towards “zero tensions” with Iran. 

Now Pakistan is looking forward to hosting Saudi and Iranian Foreign Ministers for direct talks. Speaking in a special session with senior Pakistani journalists, Khan said this week that his efforts in this regard have met a positive response. 

A major reason for the willingness of the two countries to agree to Pakistan’s mediation is the persona of the Pakistani Prime Minister. A sportsman-turned-politician, Khan has held a celebrity status over the last 50 years. His hobnobbing with the world’s elite started at a young age as a rising cricketer. Later, his charity work in Pakistan and UK brought him close not only to politicians but also with the British Royals. 

His stardom has enabled global leaders to establish a quick rapport wherein they are comfortable in dealing with him and, most recently, entrusting him with the job of solving the toughest riddle of the Middle East.

Pakistan’s history of successful mediations

This is not the first time Pakistan is mediating between powerful global rivals. Perhaps the most significant was the establishment of a diplomatic channel between the United States and China in the 70s when its goodwill with both set the journey of China’s opening up. 

After ping pong diplomacy was initiated by the US, the Chinese government conveyed through Pakistan that even President Richard Nixon was welcome to visit China. Pakistan then facilitated the visit of Henry Kissinger, the US national security advisor.

What was considered the opening of the US to China, proved to be the opening up of China to the world. Within seven years, China completely revamped its economic ties with the world and has since progressively removed restrictions on foreign investments. Today the country is on track to becoming the next global economic leader.

A recent successful mediation effort by Pakistan has been the brokering of talks between the US and the Taliban in the war-ravaged Afghanistan. Raising hopes of ending the longest war the US has ever engaged in, the belligerents are on the table and are hammering out a peace deal that will ensure the withdrawal of US troops and a guarantee by the Taliban that they will not allow Afghanistan to be used for terrorist activities.

Although President Trump has called off the talks, signs suggest that that’s not really the case. US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad and a Taliban delegation were in Islamabad earlier this month at the same time, raising speculations of their possible interaction. In yet another mark of progress, the latest meeting of top officials from the US, Russia, China and, of course, Pakistan in Moscow was of the unanimous view that negotiations are the only way forward for Afghanistan.

Past efforts of Saudi-Iran mediation

This is not the first time Pakistan will be hosting Saudi Arabia and Iran for talks. During the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) Summit in Islamabad in 1997, Pakistan facilitated a direct meeting between Saudi King Abdullah and Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani. For several years after that breakthrough, the Middle East’s tensions did not see a significant spike. Even before that, during the Iran-Iraq war, Pakistan continued to push both sides to give up the fighting.

Pakistan’s past role in mediating between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been fruitful in avoiding direct military conflict between them. The man behind the latest efforts has the ability and backing from major international players to effect a thaw in their relations. If he is successful, we may be looking forward to an open and pluralistic Middle East that sees peace after decades of an asymmetric conflict.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

The Syria safe zone is a master stroke by Erdogan

Faheem Sarwar. 

With the establishment of the Syria safe zone around the corner, center stage of the Middle East’s geopolitics is neither with Saudi Arabia nor with Iran. It’s with Turkey. President Tayyip Erdogan has played a move that has the potential of solving the eight-year-old riddle that Syria has been.

After intense closed-door negotiations with and public calls to the United States, Turkey convinced President Donald Trump to give way for a patch of a safe zone in Syria along the Turkish border. Creation of the zone is aimed at housing Syrian refugees that are presently living in Turkey and have been a source of social and political resentment there.

When the US pulled back from the designated safe zone and literally abandoned its longtime Kurdish allies, condemnation poured in from the world over. Condemnation for the US for leaving its partners in the lurch and condemnation for Turkey for launching a supposedly brutal offensive.

Turkish and local troops in Syria safe zone (AP Photo)
Turkish and local troops in Syria safe zone (AP Photo)

While the dissection of the US abandonment continues, Turkish assault has been swift and conclusive. Turkey threw in a show of force and the Kurds were quick to make peace with the Syrian government to evade further fighting.

The first censure Turkey received after entering Syria was, ironically, from the US which threatened to obliterate its economy lest it continues with the attack. The threat remained shallow for some time until the US announced sanctions against Turkey. But as things turned out, the Europeans weren’t willing to discontinue weapon supply to Turkey. The US sanctions too were eventually lifted right under the directive of Trump.

With the US out of the way, Turkey had Russia right by its side. Hours-long one-on-one negotiations between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin resulted in a definite and to-the-point agreement on the way forward for the Syria safe zone. Militaries of both countries are now planning for joint patrols in areas where, not long ago, the US military operated with the Kurdish fighters.

Syria, remarkably, has allowed Turkey’s dominance in its own territory. Though the Syrian government, with its compromised sovereignty, is still not in a position to dictate who can do what in its pre-war borders.

Turkey has appeared as a clearly dominant player in the Middle East after almost a decade of fighting that saw allies pitched against allies in battles that baffled traditional approaches of cooperation in conflict situations.

The first significant expansion of Turkey’s territorial influence since the Ottoman empire highlights the growing sway the country has acquired in global politics. It also displays the present Turkish government’s ability to solve complex geopolitical problems when its domestic and foreign policies head in the same direction.

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

The problem in Lebanon - SitRep

Saleem Zahid. 

The ongoing protests reveal a problem in Lebanon that has forced the country’s fledgling economy to a standstill and brought its economic situation once again onto the global forefront. Here is a quick round-up of the situation.

The Problems

  • The government is high in debt with its estimates at 155% of the GDP.
  • The economy is faltering.
  • Corruption is rampant and banks are accused of favoring only a the elite.
  • There is a severe shortage of basic services like electricity.

Demands by the Protesters

  • The protesters are asking an overhaul of the complete political system.
  • They are also asking the government to step down. 
  • High taxes are a huge source of contention. 
  • A tax on WhatsApp calls proved a catalyst to the protests since it is widely used by the masses and the tax caused their mobilization.

Actions by Protesters

  • Protesters are hitting the roads by the thousands to highlight the problem in Lebanon.
  • They have generally been peaceful so far. 
  • They blocked several important roads.
  • The army was called in to clear the roads but refused to confront the protesters or use force against them.
  • Protesters have carried out a general strike.

Display of Unity

  • The country that has in the past seen severe forms of internal divisions and sectarianism is now united over political and economic reforms.
  • The protesters hold only the national flag and not those of their political parties.
  • Many former supporters of political parties have called for their own leaders to step down.

Government’s Response

  • Prime Minister Saad Hariri has acknowledged the protestors’ demands, saying in a televised addressed that he hears them and has proposed a series of reforms.
  • Some new taxes, including the one on WhatsApp, have been scrapped.
  • A one time tax on banks has, however, been introduced against the accusations of undue advantages granted to them.
  • Some state institutions like the Ministry of Information have been abolished to cut government costs.
  • The plans for implementing an austerity budget have been dropped.
  • The salaries of politicians have been drastically reduced.
  • The protesters have so far been unfazed by these measures.

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

US will make up for the lost Middle East trust

Javed Ali. 

Love it or hate it, the United States under President Donald Trump is still the world’s biggest economic power. When he announced his abandonment of the Kurds in Syria, the US economy didn’t crash, the stock exchange is still stable and the pace of price increases remains modest.

As the world will move on to more serious matters, the Syrian fiasco will remain registered in its books but will definitely not affect the United States’ future engagements with its partners in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. 

With its economic might, the United States brings on the table a massive volume of investments. Whether the other party will remember the Syrian episode will hardly matter. The frequency of economic crises appearing in the world has left governments focused on addressing only the issues that are presently at hand. The past is now seldom a means of learning lessons. 

The other chip frequently on the table is the US sanctions. If I don’t like your 5G technology, I’ll sanction you. If I don’t like your immigration policies, I’ll sanction you. If I don’t like your response to my partnership request, I’ll sanction you. The second world that the Middle East is, will hardly be able to resist the US offers of mediation or engagement or partnership – whatever one may like to call them. Of course, the leverage with other parties has now increased but not to the level that they can practically dictate their terms to Uncle Sam. 

The latest contrivance of the US government is trade. Used most recently against China and Mexico, the US was able to bring both to the table and make them listen to the US demands. Although China responded in the same coin, Mexico had little sway. Using trade to regain its influence – or trust, as we may say – is not just predictable but will be very much natural. 

The influencing attempt over Ukraine apparently didn’t go much pleasant, however. President Trump with his impending impeachment is now more of a guest right now at the White House. He will take the blame of the Syrian debacle along with him when he leaves. And so he will take along most of the foreign policy failures that the US suffered during his period in the office. 

When the next US president takes charge, he will be seen as a visionary. After Trump, the US leadership standards have been pushed so low that the way forward only has an upward gradient. No matter how surprising his actions and no matter how irrational his decisions might be, the next US president will appear as a man of intellect for the world to judge in comparison. Not to forget that during the current presidency, the harshest of critics of Barak Obama are recalling his seriousness, compassion and integrity.

The pretext Trump gave for the withdrawal from Syria was his intention to bring American troops home but days later he announced beefing up the US force in Saudi Arabia. While the withdrawal didn’t go too well with Saudi Arabia, the kingdom did allow stationing of the additional US troops. No sign of lost trust and no sign of an unreliable partner. 

That is one indication of how the future will be like for the US in the Middle East. The intellectual circles will keep reminding the world about the Syrian disaster but realpolitik will continue to ensure US role in the region.

Thursday, 10 October 2019

China’s latest commitment to free trade

Iram Khan. 

Call it a trade war or a desperate attempt by the US to adjust its inefficiencies, the protraction is proving at least one thing: China will go out of its way to uphold the international free trade system built and matured during the last century. 

As the opening up process of the Chinese economy continues, new measures are coming up and demonstrating the country’s commitment to free trade – latest being the launch of six new Free Trade Zones (FTZs). Introduced for the first time in 2013, these zones have been termed one of the boldest moves in China’s reforms. They allowed business in fields that were, at that time, not accessible to foreign investors and provided a window to the Chinese market. 

The latest FTZs have been launched in coastal regions as well as in other border provinces. Their geographical locations in Shandong, Yunnan, Guangxi, Heilongjiang, Jiangsu, and Hebei reveal that China is planning to boost land-based transactions along with seaborne shipments and cater to the demands of different regions. Each covers a range of sectors from the marine industry to health and finance. 

FTZs have been playing a central role in China’s pursuit of development that is based on fair trade. After it joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), several steps were required to be taken to bring the economy on par with international standards. It had to liberalize its regime and inculcate a predictable environment in line with WTO rules. The FTZs debuted, according to Premier Li Keqiang, as “icebreakers for further opening up”. The process now continues in a staggered manner so that any corrective measures can be timely identified and applied.

These special zones have consistently facilitated the entry of foreign enterprises. They shifted the approach from outlining allowed areas of investment to one that specified only negative areas. A foreign project does not need to apply for confirmation from the government if it is not included in the negative list. This concept is immensely helpful in reducing paperwork and cutting red tape. 

The negative list approach has been augmenting the decentralization of authority to bring in more investment. It undergoes periodic revisions wherein the restricted areas are systematically reduced. The latest revision to the nationwide list in June this year slashed it from 48 areas to 40 and in one free zone from 45 to 37. 

The FTZs are also spurring liberalization of customs in China. As costs are reduced, they appeal to a larger consumer base. Consequently, consumption rises giving a boost to economic growth. Another pay-off of the liberalization is that export of services can be focused as much as that of manufacturing. Although the rise of China has largely depended upon industrial development, scaling the service sector has even greater potential in accelerating the growth. 

In the past, firms could register with Chinese authorities, build a factory and just start with their production lines. Now, however, China is catering to external and internal markets’ demands of high-end commodities which rely on sophisticated and efficient facilities. Likewise, the expertise level of talent that is now required is far higher. This is where FTZs come into play. They are attracting big-ticket industries with strong policy-level backing from the government. Returns on investment are increasing and causing a push to the high-quality national growth.  

The recently launched FTZs will be experimenting with innovative policies related to administrative functioning of the zones, managing of investment and attracting foreign talent. The government aims to ultimately replicate these practices across the country. The procedures followed in FTZs are evolving and policymakers are learning how they can be molded as per local conditions. Once they have been customized by fulfilling all domestic peculiarities, their countrywide implementation will completely liberalize the Chinese economy and enable it to expand its worldwide contribution. 

The evil of protectionism, meanwhile, has resurfaced and is hampering production around the world. If it spirals out of control, it will undo the hard-earned global prosperity. The bulwark against protectionism in the form of limited or waived tariffs in FTZs makes cross border flow of goods and capital flexible for all the stakeholders. 

The benefits of multilateralism and free trade are not only important for China but also for the rest of the world. The tariff spree initiated by the US is discouraging businesses and, in many cases, forcing companies to downsize. Shockwaves from this unwise strategy are being felt by all those connected with the supply chains between the US and China. Launch of the new FTZs at this time is a welcome step that will help offset some of the effects of the tariff induced international down growth.

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Climate change in Vietnam is changing lives

Waheed Akram. 

The waterways, the highlands and the cities, all areas are feeling the brunt of climate change in Vietnam. As the first world refuses to reduce its carbon emissions, Vietnam along with other developing nations suffer the most without even contributing as much to the emissions.

In the Mekong River delta, water is life. The canals and channels are not only a means of transportation but also a source of irrigation for the crops.

With the rising sea levels, however, the farmers in the Delta are hit the worst. Rice is the main crop. Is the salinity is rising it is getting more and more difficult to plant rice. the sea line is intruding at a place that has reduced three annual rice crops to just one. During the dry season the saltwater goes upstream and contaminates the freshwater resources.

The shortage of freshwater is even affecting the rearing of animals. Farmers find it difficult to fulfill their washing and drinking needs, what to say about fulfilling those of their animals. Malnutrition of livestock will further deteriorate the economic conditions of the farmers. So it is a two pronged threat for them.

Agricultural experts are now recommending farmers to grow modified rice types which can withstand the salt water. Another recommendation has been to shift to economic practices and the types of crops which are more suitable for brackish water.

The rising sea levels are a threat for the cities as well. Urban centres are seeing flooding more than ever. Not even regarded Venice of the East, during the rainy season many city streets start resembling canals. 

Tourism is the main source of capital for many Vietnamese cities. With the increase in flooding, the sector has been adversely affected. As it degrades the transportation network and reduces the revenue of businesses, it ultimately shrinks the tourism sector.

The highlands may be safe from the rising sea levels but climate change is causing spells of drought. summers are getting hotter and water shortages area proving disastrous for domestic use and for crops. 

The unpredictability of weather is forcing farmers to switch there traditionally grown crops. They had been working on the same crops for centuries and had honed their methods to achieve highest yields. Shifting to new types of crops will require accumulating new experience and expertise which will result in loss of valuable profits.

It is high time for the industrially advanced nations to cut their carbon emissions to address the challenges of climate change that entire world is facing. Due regard needs to be paid to the problems of developing world which are not even of their own making.

The masks in Hong Kong come off

Saleem Zahid. 

After what she called a very dark night, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam used her emergency powers to ban the Hong Kong masks. The rarely used colonial era Emergency Regulation Ordinance was invoked by her, in consultation with the legislators, to enforce the ban. Despite calls that the banning violates Hong Kong’s basic law and the Chinese law, the ordinance allows the Hong Kong government to take such measures if public security and order is in danger.

The “dark night” and the months long state of violence had risen to a level that the government was forced to resort to this move as it believes the violence justifies this latest step.

Violence in Hong Kong had been getting out of hand recently. Images where property was damaged and ATMs, subways and shops were seen burning left little to imagination that it had gone way too far. The police has been a special target of the mobs. Throwing petrol bombs and bricks endangered the life of many personnel who were doing their duty to maintain the security of the city. The frequent blocking of roads had become a nuisance for the residents who often could not reach their destinations during emergencies.

The Chinese government has frequently accused foreign governments of adding fuel to the fire in Hong Kong. Photographs of foreign embassy officials meeting with the protesters went viral and prompted a strong rebuke from the Chinese government. It believes that the meddling needs to stop in order to pacify the protesters to some level.

The protests have been disastrous for the city’s economy. Its trade has been affected, passenger inflow at the airport is low and its reputation as an international financial hub is at stake. As tourism is also down, the shopping areas are either not opening on weekends or are closing early. This is further accelerating the spiralling down of the economy.

After the Hong Kong masks were banned, reaction from the protestors was natural. They expressed a strong opposition because previously they could easily flee after attacking and ransacking. Now since they can be identified and apprehended even after any protest is over, the violence is expected to come down.

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Artificial Intelligence in China is not the future - it’s the present

Faheem Sarwar. 

The age of Artificial Intelligence in China has arrived. It is here, it is now and it is asking for more. The demand for talent is so high that the government had to push universities to promote AI education. Will the present generation, and the next, be able to match this drive is something that does seem possible, but the industry is growing and its appetite for human resource is voracious.

AI + X is an interdisciplinary approach being encouraged in universities to integrate AI with subjects like physics, sociology,psychology, biology, and mathematics among others. Dedicated AI departments have been introduced from Jilin to Nanjing and some universities are even collaborating with private companies to train their students. Apart from being teaching institutions, universities are also cradles of research and thus the vanguards of AI.

The industry itself is presenting a progressive outlook. Over4,000 firms in China today are AI-based and the government is looking for the business to exceed 1 trillion yuan by 2030. The capital Beijing with its entrepreneurial atmosphere is emerging as an AI hub. According to data from Beijing Municipal Commission of Economy and Information Technology (BMCEIT), the city hosts more than 1,070 AI companies which is 26 percent of the country’s count. 1,237 AI companies from around China have acquired venture investments and 431 out of these, or 35percent, are from Beijing.

Rokid, a well-funded startup from Hangzhou, is ready to mass produce its custom AI chip for voice recognition and is planning to create China’s first AI Operating System. The country’s largest carmaker, SAIC Motor, is also it’s first to launch an in-house AI lab.While focusing on cloud computing, big data, and business application, the Shanghai-headquartered company aims to put smart technology to use in automobile production, automobile products, rental service, and logistics.

Kunlun might be a famous mountain range in western China but it is the name of Baidu’s indigenous cloud-to-edge AI chip as well, which according to it’s CEO, has a computational capability 30 times faster than the latest field-programmable gate array based AI accelerator. Baidu Brain is another ambitious project by the tech giant, adding a human touch in machines to enable them to see, hear and understand better.

China’s extensive use of AI in the medical field is easing load from hospitals and improving skills of doctors.Alibaba in Shanghai, for instance, is not only using data for patient prediction and doctor allocation, but in Zhejiang it is developing AI-based diagnosis tools to analyze CT scans and MRIs. In a country where more than 2.7 million people give in to cancer each year, Tencent is developing Miying – an AI clinical diagnostic system which learns from big data, examines endoscopy images and gives feedback in 4 seconds with an accuracy reaching as high as 90 percent.

Pitched against AI last month, experienced physicians were seen at an euroimaging contest in Beijing. In the two rounds of diagnosing brain tumors and predicting hematoma expansion, an AI system named BioMind scored a clear2:0 win. This does not mean AI will one day be replacing the human doctor.Instead, it will only act how GPS does for a driver today.

AI companies are proving immenselyhelpful to the government in ensuring public security. SenseTime, a valuablestart-up, has installed vision and image recognition systems at multiple airports and railwaystations. A high-tech enterprise, CloudWalk Technology, has engaged with authorities in the mega Skynet Project to identify pedestrians and vehicles, worked with 23provinces and helped arrest almost 2,600 suspects. Hikvision, another producerof AI-powered systems and front-end cameras, also partnerswith local governments to provide facialrecognition and big data analysis.

2018 is a good year for AI enthusiasts inChina. Smart China Expo planned for August in the Chongqing municipality is expecting to “acceleratethe development of China’s AI industry”. The event will be marked withcompetitions, exhibitions and thematic activities aimed at integration ofinternet and big data. Later in September, Shanghai will host AI World 2018conference with the theme of “New Era of Artificial Intelligence”. Specialactivities to boost investment and research are planned for the event. Thecity’s deputy mayor believes that local AI industry will develop after furtherimprovement of intellectual property protection.

Since the State Council issued an AI development planlast year, China’s rapidly developing tech industry is fueling the massivegrowth of this new age technology. Latest privacy standards adopted in May anda new cybersecurity law are some of the measures taken toregulate its growth. While there are no reports of any large-scale data leak inthe country, citizens’ find their confidence in AI improving with major playersintending to provide opensource access to their platforms.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Chinese civil aviation industry going stronger than you think

Ashraf Qureshi. 

In under 4 years, China will be the world’s largestcivil aviation market. At least that is what International TransportAssociation thinks. There are figures to backthis claim. And they are being issued by not one but multiple internationalentities.

Considered the Oscars of the aviation industry,Skytrax World Airline Awards this month placed China’s Hainan Airlines in the global top 10 – second year in a row.Hainan also bagged the Britain-based consultancy’s title of a Five Star Airlinefor eighth consecutive time. As 24.45 million travelers polled by Skytrax can’tbe wrong, China’s aviation industry is aiming for nothing short of the sky.

A major boom in China’s aviation industry has beencaused by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – a mega project aimed at revivingancient trading routes. International players are cooperating with localmanufacturers on several fronts to benefit from new opportunities offered byBRI. Lithuania’s Avia is one such group that is initiating partnerships with Chinesefirmsto provide aviation-related facilities. Besides focusing on training, the groupintends to carry out maintenance and repair operations along the BRI route. Itssister company AviaAM Leasing concurrently has engaged with Henan CivilAviation Development to lease 14 airliners.

Chinese manufactured aircraft are in demand as well among the BRIparticipating countries. 57 aircraft of the type MA60/600 turboprop have beenexported to 18 BRI countries and 103 of the Y-12 series planes have beendelivered to 28. The aircraft exported by China are not only being utilized forcivil aviation but they have also found their usage in fields like training andemergency rescue.

Other locally manufactured aircraft undergoing finaltesting include a large passenger jet, an amphibious aircraft, and alightweight sports airplane. Comac C919, China’s first homegrown trunkjetliner, is planned to hit the market by 2021. Already bagging 815 ordersfrom across the globe, the aircraft is a result of Comac’s cooperation with localgovernments and institutions for provision of industrial bases and conductingflight tests.

AG600 is expected to attempt its first watertakeoff in a couple of months. It is the world’s largest amphibious aircraft andis developed by Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC). AG600 will bethe third member of China’s “large aircraft family” after the Y-20 freighterand C919.

Another locally manufactured aircraft raising the baris the lightweight ‘wind feather’ sportsmachine. This is the first Chinese airplane built entirely with domesticintellectual property. A product of Shanghai Aokesai, the aircraft hassuccessfully received type certification from civil aviation administration andis ready for export. Orders from 11 countries, amounting to an encouraging 200million yuan have already been placed.

Chinese aviation industry is also expanding globally.AVIC is establishing a new company in London to produce cabin interiorsfor international aviation giants including Airbus and Boeing. At the sametime, a range of other aviation-related agreements with the UK demonstrate thegrowing level of collaboration. Chinese ambassador to the UK recently talkedabout upgrading the UK-Chinaair corridor which is expected to reach 150 direct flights every week through anagreement reached under 9th China-UK Economic and Financial Dialogue.

The propitious future of Chinese aviation industry canbe gauged from the fact that a newly revised negativelistallowing foreign access to local manufacturing industry includes majorconcessions for the aviation sector. Foreign ownership limitations on severaltypes of aircraft have been removed and have thus triggered the interest ofnumerous international companies.

Airbus, which has delivered over 370 aircraft sinceits Tianjin based Forward Assembly Line (FAL) went operational in 2008, nowplans to increase the facility’sproduction capacity of four A320s per month to six per month. The FAL is a jointventure of Airbus, AVIC, and Tianjin Free Trade Zone.

The industry is generating a major wave of innovation.National Centre for Nanoscience and Technology of China has teamed up withAirbus to jointly establish aresearch facility for application of nanotechnology in the field of aviation.Airbus is also establishing a globalinnovation center in China. The company plans to use it for acceleratingR&D and utilize the innovative environment of Shenzhen to cultivate anintegrated hardware and software ecosystem.

In less than 2 years, more than 500 generalaviation airports will be dotting China’s map. During the same period, thefleet of general aviation aircraft will expand to over 5,000. Boeing meanwhile forecasts that China will be inducting6,300 new aircraft by the year 2037. This is an unprecedented expansion –something the aviation industry of the entire globe needs to align with. It isa calling for local and international investors to come forward and be a partof the success.

Thursday, 3 October 2019

No new war is coming to the Middle East

Javed Ali. 

When Iran shot down a US drone, there was a threat of war. When Iran seized a British oil tanker in a tit for tat move, there was a threat of war. When Saudi Arabia’s oil refinery was attacked allegedly by cruise missiles, there was a threat of war.

But no new Middle East war is coming. The United States, the Middle East and the world, all cannot afford one. The last time the experiment was undertaken, large swaths of territories fell in the hands of terrorists instead of being liberated. Today, there is no guarantee that the results will be any different.

Trump doesn’t want war

US intervention, despite the beef up of its troops in the area, is all the more unlikely. President Donald Trump kicked off his tenure in an apparent drive to undo all initiatives of the Obama administration. Among other disastrous moves, the Iran nuclear deal was slashed, leaving little sway for the US on keeping a tab on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Another aim of the Trump administration is to avoid getting into a new war. Trump is pulling out of Afghanistan – even if he publicly states that the talks with the Taliban are over. There is lesser US engagement in Syria and Iraq. And North Korea too seems to be getting cozy. Voters before the next elections have to see Trump as the perfect “deal maker” who has the assured ability to wane conflicts among parties of any level.

Trump’s internal problems

Then there is too much for Trump to handle at the domestic front. The imminent threat of impeachment is his biggest concern at the moment. Congress and the media are baying for blood and there is no escape in sight.

If any allies would support him in any new war in the Middle East, this would be the least likely time. His days at the White House may be numbered and getting on a sinking ship is the last option any US partner would like to avail.

The backlash from his supporters who are suffering from the aftereffects of the protracted trade war with China is also weakening his mandate. New wars will further strain the US economy that is trying to find new markets after those of China became expensive, thanks to Trump’s initiatives.

Saudi refusal to retaliate to oil field attack

Saudi Arabia is shown appreciable restraint after the attacks on its oil refinery. Although it ousted a major part of its oil production capacity and was a direct attack in its heartland, it decided not to respond. The princes were right in saying that their aggressive response would upset the oil market whose effects would be felt in all global industries, with the potential of severely hampering the world’s growth.

Meeting between Saudi and Iranian energy ministers

An encouraging sign during these stressing times in the Middle East is the meeting between Saudi and Iranian ministers at a Russian energy conference. While the Iranian oil minister called the Saudi energy minister a friend of 22 years, they were both later seen holding hands with OPEC’s Secretary General.

With all these encouraging sights in the Middle East and troublesome developments for Trump, it can be safely assumed that no new war is coming to the Middles East. Oil supply will remain secure and – if the optimism does not carry us too far – the fire in Yemen too might douse soon.

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