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Saturday, 30 November 2019

Protests in Hong Kong get innovative – and dangerous too

Ashraf Qureshi.

I am not getting into the debate of who is right in the battle of ideas in the streets of Hong Kong – for now. And whether China is right in extending its, now recalled, extradition law to the self-governing region or if the protesters are right in making their voice heard by resorting to disruption.

I am going to explain how protests get innovative when they happen in one of the most high-tech regions of the world and when those protesting are one of the most educated.

An Evolution from Low-Tech Methods

The protests in Hong Kong started like they do in any other part of the world. People started voicing their demands through rallies and large congregations. With time, thinking that the authorities were not hearing them, they became violent.

Hong Kong protesters set up barricades on roads
Hong Kong protesters set up barricades on roads

First it was the disruption of road traffic by setting up barricades. On police’s intervention, streets started transforming into battlefields as bricks and stones started flying.

With the intensification of clashes, incidents of physical beatings surfaced. All forms of authority and all those connected with mainland China appeared legitimate targets. Journalists, police officers and some regular folks felt the rage of the protesters first hand.

Not stopping at that, vandalism broke out against businesses and facilities that the protesters thought connected with or sympathetic with the mainland. People broke into restaurants, shops, outlets, and transport stations and set many of them ablaze.

Things took a dangerous turn with the surfacing of petrol bombs. News outlets have reported cases of people getting significant burns after falling victim to these rudimentary devices. Likewise, a couple of protesters also attacked police officials with weapons like knives where, in one case, an officer got his neck slashed.

A journalist is hit by a petrol bomb (Reuters Photo)
A journalist is hit by a petrol bomb (Reuters Photo)

To disperse the crowds, the police resorted to tear gas early on. The success rate was high. Protesters were using the regular face masks to hide their identities – despite a mask ban by the government – that proved inadequate in protecting from the gas.

Gas Masks

Tear gas has been the biggest problem for the protesters. To overcome it, the masks got an upgrade. Instead of surgical and cloth masks, people started wearing gas masks that could filter out the tear gas and let them stay put.

Ever since gas masks arrived at the scene, the effectiveness of tear gas has significantly reduced. Although the infrequent participants continue to use the regular face masks, the regular and hardcore protesters at the frontlines with the police are the ones preferring the gas masks.

Catapults

Most of the protesters are young and university students. Many being engineering students put their skills to use by introducing makeshift catapults. They tie a metallic cross together with elastic strings, attach it to a safety helmet and the catapult is ready.

Initially, the catapults were used to hurl bricks at the riot police. But a worrisome development has been the hurling of petrol bombs. This, once again, tempts me to wade into the debate of taking a side on what’s right and what’s wrong but I’ll keep it for the end of this post.

Protesters fire from rooftops using improvised catapults
Protesters fire from rooftops using improvised catapults

Lasers

The protesters have been using handheld laser pointing devices for quite some time. They claim to use it to distract the police and blind the security cameras. Though there is little evidence that these devices can achieve the two objectives, there definitely is evidence that they are harmful to eyes when pointed directly.

The city police came down upon the protesters for using these lasers and even demonstrated the fire-igniting power of some lasers. Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) has issued guidelines that advise wearing of tinted goggles to protect eyes against laser pens and strobe lights while covering the Hong Kong protests.

Lasers have raised safety concerns among the journalists covering the protests in Hong Kong (Getty Images)
Lasers have raised safety concerns among the journalists covering the protests in Hong Kong (Getty Images)

Identity Protection

Hong Kong citizen identification cards come with embedded Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips. Despite the detection range of this RFID chips being extremely limited, a paranoia among protesters forces a section among them to fold their identity cards in tinfoil.

In addition to their faces, some are even hiding their ears to avoid tracking by the authorities. Many take one-way tickets when going to protest areas so that they cannot be traced back to their homes. The extent of Hong Kong authorities’ tracking ability is not known with certainty but the protesters are taking no risks.

Protesters are extremely cautious in revealing their identification (SCMP Photo)
Protesters are extremely cautious in revealing their identification (SCMP Photo)

Arrows

And then came the arrows. Although not too high-tech but they are something not seen elsewhere in the global protest spree. After the protesters somehow realized that occupying the streets was not enough, they went on to occupying universities. When all but the Hong Kong Polytechnic University remained under siege by the protesters, a dramatic scene erupted during its clearance.

A protester shoots a fire-wielding arrow (Getty Images)
A protester shoots a fire-wielding arrow (Getty Images)

While many students were attempting to escape through sewers, those who were holding their ground started firing arrows towards the approaching police from the university’s rooftops. And an official did get hurt. He was a police media liaison officer who received an arrow in his calf and was taken to hospital for treatment.

Since then, arrows have been a common sight in the hands of the protesters. This is the first lethal weapon they are using. If it results in any unfortunate eventuality, consequences will definitely not be good for the pro-democracy camp.

A police media liaison officer was hit by one of the arrows (HK Police Photo)
A police media liaison officer was hit by one of the arrows (HK Police Photo)

Is All This Helping the Pro-Democracy Camp?

Most Western nations supported the Hong Kong protesters vocally when they were voicing for democracy related reforms by peaceful means. As soon as violence seeped in, support started to wane – though as Beijing believes, the support still exists under covert means.

With each passing week, new methods of violence are popping up in the largely leaderless movement. It has had its chance to make its voice heard by legal means in the recent elections where the pro-democracy camp won a landslide victory in the Legislative Council of Hong Kong.

What started as a protest against an extradition law proposed by Beijing to send suspects for trials to the mainland has transformed into a call for greater autonomy and human rights in Hong Kong. The violations of human rights there are, however, not one-sided, to say the least. If the protesters continue to resort to violence, the world will decreasingly consider their voice to be legitimate.

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Egypt and China getting closer to shape a new Middle East


 

Faheem Sarwar. 

Egypt and China are getting closer at a time when the traditional role player of the region, the United States, is retreating back to its shore. The future of the Middle East is finally out of the ambit of a single global power as the growing multi-polarity is diversifying regional alliances.

Geographical Leverage of Egypt

Egypt is a doorway to Africa where China intends to undertake Africa-oriented tripartite cooperation. With its strategic geographic location and a thriving economy, it can promote communication between Africa and China.

To diversify its revenues, it has been developing the Suez Canal Economic Zone where China has become the largest investor. Chinese President Xi Jinping himself inaugurated the up-gradation of a Chinese economic zone near the Suez Canal in 2016. 

The 150-year-old waterway has been a major source of economic support for the country. With Chinese support in boosting the canal’s role in global trade, it is expected to continue augmenting Egypt’s national economy. 

Security Challenges

The effects of the so-called Arab Spring can still be felt in the country. Sporadic protests on the lines of those recurring in several other parts of the world are creating problems for the government. Although terrorism has significantly subsided in the region, its resurgence cannot be ruled out. 

Security was a major point of discussion when Wang Yang, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), visited Egypt earlier this month and held meetings with the country’s leadership.

The exemplary law and order situation in China has been inspiring its partners. During meetings with Mr Wang, Egypt called upon learning from China’s deradicalization policies which are being supported by major Arab and Muslim countries. Likewise, Egyptian leaders asked for taking the assistance of Chinese cybersecurity and anti-terrorism expertise. 

With the diminishing US sway and the growing strategic alliances of China in MENA, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has asked China to play to its influence in promoting stability in the region. 

Growing Mutual Trade

For seven straight years since 2012, China has been Egypt’s largest trading partner. With the Egyptian economy largely dependent on agriculture, the country intends to grow its agri exports to China – something that China has already been looking forward to. 

The Chinese consumer market is exponentially expanding with government support and with massive events like the recently held China International Import Export (CIIE) that grabbed international deals amounting to $71.13 billion during its five days.

On the other hand, Egypt with a population of almost 100 million and GDP reaching $335 billion, presents itself as a huge market with immense potential for Chinese enterprises to expand into the country. China has been the largest exporter to Egypt since 2012 and with the bolstering of Egypt’s industrial capacity through the Suez Canal Economic Zone, its industrial exports to China will also see a hike.

Multifaceted Support to Egypt

Chinese support to its partners is different from that offered by Western nations that have traditionally been viewed in this role. Wang Yang, during his visit, stated that China supported Egypt’s development path as per Egypt’s own national conditions. 

As has often been observed with western developmental packages, they come with several unmanageable strings attached. China’s support to its allies, however, respects their domestic political and social environment.

Wang’s visit also paved the way for enhancing coordination between the two countries’ development strategies. After a period of turmoil, Egypt is on the path of reconstruction. It can learn from the strategies employed by China during its rapid development phase that was affected after its leadership decided to open up the country in the late 70s. 

A fast-paced rise in China’s growth subsequently culminated into a high-quality growth era that now focuses on making it a powerhouse of technological innovation. 

Egypt can, in the same manner, push its industry to achieve an increase in output and, even simultaneously, focus on high-quality manufacturing and service industries. It will enable the country to make the best use of both approaches while balancing all kinds of market demands. 

Like China, Egypt is also an ancient civilization that has successfully preserved its history. Today Egypt is the destination of global tourists who want to have a touch of the past while at the same time enjoy state of the art facilities. 

China has a massive tourist power. Any direction its tourists turn their itineraries to, they bring with them a large amount of foreign exchange. This offers a chance for both countries to increase consumption and provide a livelihood for all those connected with the travel industry. 

Egypt’s and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)

No less than the Egyptian President Sisi conveyed his country’s support to the BRI to the visiting Chinese advisor. BRI is an ambitious China-proposed infrastructure, trade, and energy development project spanning several continents. China considers Egypt a natural partner in this mega project. Egypt offers a gateway for BRI to connect the countries located in the African heartland. 

The most feasible way for Egypt to plug with the BRI is through the Pakistani deep seaport of Gwadar. Located at the southernmost point of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Gwadar connects the shipping traffic coming from the Suez Canal to China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region through the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden. 

Before the construction of the Gwadar port, this traffic had to pass through the treacherous Strait of Malacca which perpetually remains embroiled in political and strategic tussles. Any eventuality arising from the presence of an array of militaries in the Andaman Sea can be detrimental to the trade that relies on this choke point. It is, therefore, extremely pertinent to have an alternate point of trade. 

Strategic Support

Egypt has been a supporter of the one-China principle. The recent events in Hong Kong have brought stark realities to global limelight as the Chinese government has warned foreign forces to stop interfering in its internal affairs. Many of its partners, like Egypt, have been providing it support at international forums. Egypt, for one, endorses the measures China has taken to safeguard its territorial sovereignty and national stability. 

The two countries are on the path to consolidating their partnership through economic and diplomatic means. As China’s contributions in the MENA region grow, Egypt is at the forefront of efforts to integrate Asian, European and African economies. 

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

US risks losing popularity in Pakistan by censuring CPEC


 

Hayat Bangash. 

Ambassador Alice Wells, the Principal Deputy Secretary of State for South and Central Asia while speaking about China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) last Thursday called its southern section the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) a high stake risk for China and Pakistan. She showed concern as America’s top strategic rival is expanding its investment and influence in a country where the US is now less present and less popular. 

She made her observations on CPEC about its cost, debt, transparency, and jobs and hoped that the people of Pakistan will ask Beijing tough questions and insist on transparency of this expensive project. She went on further saying that the US had a better model for the improvement of Pakistan’s economy.

Strong Rebuke from Pakistan and China

It was probably for the first time that a senior US official publicly criticized BRI and the CPEC. The critic got a prompt response from both China and Pakistan. Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Mr Yao Jing blamed Ms Wells for lack of knowledge and her stance based on Western propaganda to the level of accusations. He said, “I would like to remind my American colleague that if you are really making this kind of allegation, please be careful, show your evidence and we will take action.” He further said that Beijing will never force Islamabad to repay its loans in time, unlike the IMF.

Pakistan calls the Corridor a game-changer for its economy in a critical state. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi rejected the apprehensions of Alice Wells by saying that the multi-billion dollar CPEC project will continue for the economic growth of his country and the US objections will not affect it. 

Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting, termed the US concerns baseless and resolved to continue with the corridor which would open a pathway of development for the entire region. Minister Planning, Asad Umar too was prompt in brushing aside the US concern by calling it a wrong analysis.

Why Exactly is the US Getting Unpopular in Pakistan?

US Principal Deputy Secretary of State must be having the facts of the past in her mind while referring to Pakistan as a country where the US is now less popular. Unfortunately, the US had become untrustworthy in the eyes of common Pakistanis and they have reasons for this understanding. 

Pakistanis mention the Soviet-Afghan war of 1979 won with the help of their country and which made the US the sole superpower after disintegration of the USSR. But the US left its ally alone facing the burden of four million Afghan refugees. The US used Pakistan for a purpose before abandoning it, only to take it up for another expedient for its War on Terror. 

Yet again, it failed to provide expenses for repair of the road infrastructure that depleted through continuous use of over 15 years for providing logistics to NATO and US troops in Afghanistan. CPEC, on the other hand, provides an opportunity to Pakistanis to repair and rebuild these roads and highways.

The unjustified and one-sided sanctions imposed by the US on Pakistan after it was forced to go nuclear in 1998 in response to nuclear tests and threats of its arch-rival India were another reason for the declining US popularity. 

The unfortunate story of depriving of 28 F-16 aircraft Pakistanis had paid for, that the US demurred reimbursing, charged for storage and gave wheat and soybean oil instead of, is still fresh in their minds. Some Pakistanis are even waiting for the US Seventh Fleet to arrive and assist its longtime strategic partner against a wicked ally of the then USSR.

China, meanwhile, is considered a friend that has always supported Pakistan in the hour of need. The people of Pakistan call the Sino-Pak friendship higher than the Himalayas, deeper than oceans and sweeter than honey. The Karakoram Highway, cooperation in manufacturing of the fighter jet JF-17 Thunder and CPEC are considered the result of this friendship. China always went for investment in Pakistan contrary to the US which opted for giving aid. The US aid, the common Pakistanis think, has gone into the coffers of their corrupt rulers.

This is a New Pakistan

The US must appreciate that the “New Pakistan” understands the importance of trade and investment and this was a point highlighted by Prime Minister Imran Khan to the top leadership of the US during his latest official visit. CPEC is a great example of trade and investment from China. It is expected that the US will appreciate its importance for boosting the economy of Pakistan rather than create doubts for its longtime strategic partner in the region. 

Monday, 25 November 2019

A chance to bring down the India-Pakistan hostility

Sana Adnan. 

Ever since parting ways in 1947, Pakistan and India have largely remained hostile to each other. Although the government of the military ruler General Pervez Musharraf brought about improvement in their bilateral relations, the romanticism of peace was short-lived. Despite Kashmir being a constant point of conflict between the two countries, somehow both India and Pakistan have now managed to let sanity prevail.

The year 2019 started with the Pulwama Attack in the Indian Occupied Kashmir, pushing the bilateral relations between the two neighbors at the lowest ebb ever since 1999. Both countries had been blaming each other of border violations and warmongering.

The Kartarpur Initiative

Amidst the rising hostility, Pakistan has opened a corridor for India’s Sikh pilgrims at Kartarpur in the country’s Punjab province. The corridor is meant to connect the Dera Nanak Sahib Gurdwara in India with the Darbar Sahib Kartarpur in Pakistan. Visa-free access has been granted to India’s Sikh pilgrims to perform their religious rites.

Sikhs in India had been demanding access to Kartarpur since 1947. For the first time now, the proposal was pushed by Pakistan despite resistance from India. On November 9, 2019, PM Imran Khan inaugurated the Kartarpur corridor which was viewed by many as the beginning of a peace process. 

Indian Response

Unlike the governments of the past, the current poster boy of Indian politics and a leader of the hardline Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Narendra Modi, built his entire election rhetoric on an anti-Pakistan sentiment. Many of his critics believe that the Pulwama attack was an inside job orchestrated by the BJP to win the elections amidst their declining vote bank.

Interestingly, the buck does not stop at the anti-Pakistan rhetoric. Modi is known for the infamous state-sponsored Gujrat riots in 2002 when he was the Chief Minister. The investigations and independent sting operations that followed one of the bloodiest communal riots in recent South Asian history exposed the Modi-RSS nexus.

The right-wing RSS political group, or the Rashtriya Samayamsevak Sangh, aggressively supports a Hindutva ideology and has been campaigning to declare India as a Hindu nationalist state, questioning the current secular status of the country.

Modi’s coveted support for the Hindutva ideology was further endorsed with the controversial abrogation of Article 370, dissolving the special status of the Indian Occupied Kashmir on August 5th, 2019. Kashmir has since been under a total lockdown and Pakistan has been aggressively voicing its concerns on international platforms. Despite all the heat, Pakistan went ahead with Kartarpur and India was forced to give in because it cannot afford to lose the support of its Sikh minority.

Interestingly, as India signed an agreement with Pakistan over the corridor, the Indian Supreme court passed the judgment on a disputed piece of land in the city of Ayodha in favor of Hindu claimants who had destroyed a mosque there in 1992. Observers believe that passing the controversial judgment on a Saturday, and on the same date as of the Kartarpur Corridor’s inauguration, India gave a message to its archrival that Kartarpur is an isolated favor.

What to Expect in the Future

Regional stakeholders such as China and Russia have welcomed the Kartarpur project and hailed it as a beginning of peace. But unlike the past, Pakistan is dealing with a government that firmly disagrees with the idea of a secular India.

The BJP-RSS nexus has recently come out openly with its extreme ideology and has systematically used mass media to shape public opinion to align with its ideology. The Indian government is skeptical of Pakistan’s intentions. On the flip side, Imran Khan’s critics in Pakistan believe that he is being way too generous. Under such conditions, the possibility of immediate improvement of ties looks bleak but Kartarpur corridor’s opening is going to bear positive long term effects.

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

The global protest spree: One movement inspires the other


Zara Mansoor. 

Mass protests in Chile, Iraq, Brazil, Lebanon, Egypt and Ecuador have gained much of the world’s attention. Some of them are in full swing while others are subsiding. The reasons behind all are common: poor governance, corruption, lack of political freedom and rising living costs. 

Poor economic conditions in these countries have forced the masses to take to the streets and fight for their rights. The “World Spring” has begun. Each country’s efforts are influencing others to stand in the face of their rulers as they have long tolerated suppression.

Geographical outspread of the protests 

Demonstrations across Chile’s capital Santiago have occurred over escalation of subway fares and road tolls. Broken promises and corruption of elites have caused frustration among people. The government failed to answer the long-standing disappointments of the protestors and intensified the situation even more.  

Thousands of protestors in Iraq’s capital Baghdad have occupied the central Tahrir square as they lament about their conditions getting worse. They are also fed up of foreign interference in their political structure and the corruption their country is facing. Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi, backed by a shaky alliance, is now struggling to retain his leadership.

Brazilian teachers and students stormed the streets in the name of an “Education Tsunami” to fight against their far right President Jair Bolsonaro. His assault on education had built up an awful sequence of events in the country.  

In Hong Kong, crisis erupted when an extradition bill was passed by the government which would enable it to extradite accused persons for trial in mainland China. Although the bill was later suspended, demonstrations continue while further creating unrest in the city.  

Anti-government riots in Lebanon shook the whole country when all societal factions united against their government’s failure to deal with the country’s economy. The country’s worst economic crisis – high prices, unemployment, corruption and poor governance – forced the people to demand complete reform of the political system. Although Prime Minister Saad Hariri has resigned, protestors want a non-sectarian government and a functional political framework for their country. 

Similar protests are going on in Egypt, against the Sisi Regime. Although In 2013, Egypt passed a law banning such protests but rising prices and falling economic and political structure forced the people to rise and demand the leader’s resignation.

Last month, Ecuador faced huge sit-ins over sharp rise in petrol prices leading to economic insecurities and rising food and transport prices. Protesters stormed the national parliament and violent clashes shook the environment. After days of mass protests, the government surrendered.

A domino effect

The clashes between governments and their people have led thousands to put their lives at stake in search for freedom. As is the saying “freedom is never free”, it always asks something in return. The demonstrations proved that power still lies with the people and they can overthrow their leadership if it fails to maintain the proper structure of the country’s economy and politics. One movement arouses the other. Uprisings like the Arab Spring are being observed in a different set of countries. 

Citizens of these countries were already living in underprivileged conditions but the attempt of a single group of people to challenge their situation started a domino effect. One by one, residents of other countries challenged their rulers’ autonomy and succeeded in bringing them down. Some are still pushing. 

Governments worldwide are failing to satisfy their masses. Leaderships destroyed the order and foundation on which their countries stood on. Along with that, rule of law in these countries is on the verge of collapse. The mass movements are attempting to regain their countries’ former glories but are also causing the destruction of their civil structure. 

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Riyadh Agreement is making an impact

Usama Ziafat. 

Peace in the Arabian peninsula is finally in sight with the signing of Riyadh Agreement between the Yemeni government and separatists. Although the settlement is yet to take shape, it is finally making an impact on the lives of people who suffered from the protracted fighting.

Yemen faced a miserable outlook when it was attacked by the political forces known as the ‘Houthis’. The United Nations repeatedly expressed concern over the fragile situation that has killed thousands of people including children. 

Then came the effort to restore peace. The president of the internationally recognized government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) both signed an agreement over power-sharing – also referred to as the Riyadh Agreement. It was initiated by Saudi Arabia as an attempt to ease the tensions and to restrain the airstrikes in Yemen with hopes to discontinue attacks on Saudi Arabia by the Houthis. 

The Riyadh agreement is still open to amendments and discussion. This initiative can bring peace in Yemen and lead to a settlement that can introduce positive changes and make a positive impact on Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Signing of the Riyadh Agreement
Signing of the Riyadh Agreement (Handout Photo)

This means that if this political settlement reaches a positive conclusion in Yemen, it can reduce the gap between the factions and the forces while making way for further negotiations. If this, however, does not materialize, the consequences can be disastrous for the already suffering civilians.

It was back in 2014 when the Houthis began to rebel against Yemen. The southern port city of Aden and Riyadh became their prime target. The event took more complex turns after the military intervention of Saudi Arabia. In 2016, Riyadh agreed to help Yemen fight this rebellious war against the Houthis. Initially, the Emiratis were in favor of Hadi and supported STC. Later, STC turned its back and the Houthis took advantage of the whole situation. 

The situation in the Arabian peninsula has markedly improved. Riyadh responded positively after Houthis asked Saudis to limit their restrictions and lift the blockade on imports to certain areas in Yemen. The Saudis have realized the impact of the situation after a shocking response from the US security umbrella. As a result, they called upon stopping the ongoing war by any financial or political means. 

Yemen is now in hopes of a political settlement that might follow the Riyadh agreement. Talks to settle matters between the Hadi government and the Houthis are still in progress with the ultimate goal of a cease-fire.

Two conclusions can be made from the present situation. Either the power-sharing deal will pursue Hadi and STC to generate peace talks or it will cause more commotion. The road to peace is definitely long for Yemen. 

But if both sides show a willingness to a cease-fire while accepting the peace agreement, it can pave the way for a political settlement between Yemen and Saudi Arabia while improving the economic situation of the region. The settlement will also facilitate the Hadi government and will help the emerging forces such as Houthis to wind down the whole situation on peaceful terms. 

The main responsibility falls with Saudi Arabia’s ability to proceed with the negotiations. With the proposed agreement, there’s still more convincing to be done. However, the outcome would be decided by the Yemenis. And if any issues are left unresolved, they will have the potential of stirring up more conflicts.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Japan and Russia have to move on from Kuril Islands

Sidra Zahoor. 

Japan-Russia relations have been associated with the dispute at the Kuril Islands for several years. Although they have tried to find a diplomatic solution since 2012, several sore points still exist.

Focused on progressing Japan, Shinzō Abe has been involved in improving political regulations in his country to fulfil his larger plans. By bringing free trade agreements and constitutional revisions into discussion, he has initiated several projects. At the same time, he has positioned himself as one of the most influential figures in Japan’s political landscape.

Why is the settlement important?

Shinzō Abe has held around 27 meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Abe is not only sticking to core economic priorities of Japan but has also been intending to maintain the country’s role in international politics.

When we talk about the failures of the Abe administration, they comprise of the issues with a pacifist constitution, outlawing the management of an armed force, lower pace of domestic development and hardly any leverage at the international front and at the UN Security Council. Keeping in mind its discussions with North Korea and the relations with other neighbors, they have been quite far from productive. After the recent spat with South Korea dented their key alliance, Japan is left with less options of counterbalancing China.

Life is often difficult under the harsh weather of Kuril Islands (Al Jazeera Photo)
Life is often difficult under the harsh weather of Kuril Islands (Al Jazeera Photo)

In such a situation, negotiations with Russia have become significant as they offer a helping hand to Japan’s current conditions. Putin and Abe have a working relationship as the personal connections in the Russo-Japanese negotiations have in the past proved fruitful.

Being a participant of the Russia initiated Eastern Economic Forum that makes use of Japanese investments, Abe is being increasingly considered one of Putin’s close acquaintances. Having said that, their bilateral relations and territorial disputes can be solved as both states appear to be positive.

The options with Japan and Russia

Even though the public opinion over Russian military and Kuril islands are still the basic obstacles, the negotiations between Russia and Japan can take place as per the 1956 Joint Declaration. This refers to the fact that Shinzō Abe might agree to accept the areas of Habomai and Shikotan. Moreover, the softening of Japanese negotiations has encouraged Russia to show some diplomatic flexibility to address the concerns of Shinzō Abe.

Moscow can establish a close association with Tokyo to allow it to contribute to Russia’s growth. To open up to the needs of both, Putin and Abe need to agree to an agenda that can facilitate the islands’ transition, implement peace treaties and sign up for collaborations.

On a temporary basis, a possible agreement can be made that includes a mutual authority and overseeing the Kuril Islands. Likewise, implementation of separate agreements over financial collaboration and non-involvement of military can help to pave the road of success in Russo-Japanese negotiations. Above all, signing of a peace agreement is also an option to ensure social and economic development of both nations.

If an agreement can be reached by the year 2022, it will affect a positive breakthrough at several levels. Asia will experience development and an improved safety environment with the normalization of Japan-Russia relations.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

The smog in Pakistan is a warning of larger crisis

Bismah Khan. 

Earlier this month, a dense layer of smog in Pakistan forced the government to announce a shutdown of all private and government schools in the eastern city of Lahore. The smog forced people to gasp for air and resulted in numerous respiratory cases at hospitals.

Before the smog took over the city, there were complaints on social media over a pungent smell in the city with a reduced visibility. #LahoreSmog continued to trend in Pakistani Twitterspace. The change in air was caused by burning of rubbish and crops in the fields of the outskirts, smoke from vehicles, industrial releases, construction sites and brick kilns.

Specialists believe that the unexpected rise in the Air Quality Index (AQI) was due to a change in wind direction which brought in further smoke and toxins from neighboring India, whose capital New Delhi is said to be facing the same extraordinary of smog. Other than that, huge traffic jams in Lahore were also blamed for the situation.

AQI is used to measure how polluted the air is or how much it will be polluted in the near future. According to media reports, an AQI of 640 was recorded late Wednesday evening, which crossed the line of the ‘hazardous’ stage of air quality.

The smog in Pakistan severely reduced visibility
The smog in Pakistan severely reduced visibility

Recently, a list of world’s 20 most polluted cities with their AQI status was released. Lahore stood at 19th position. But less than 24 hours later, it ranked the 2nd most polluted city on 29th October. A few days ago, adviser to the Pakistani Prime Minister for climate change admitted that smog was a serious matter. He stated that Pakistan had taken steps to halt the burning of crops which was one of the largest factors of this situation. The situation, however, continues to remain dismal.

Due to the smog and a windstorm, driving is considered next to impossible as well as dangerous. As much as it was a tough task for the drivers to look across the windscreens of their cars, wipers were seen running but to no avail. Even with these AQI levels, citizens of Lahore continued with their daily lives.

With the air pollution, millions of premature deaths are recorded in Pakistan and this year it had a major effect here in Pakistan. According to Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection, an AQI of 300 and further, i.e. level 6, means that the quality of air is extremely polluted. Public health is exposed to risks and even healthy people suffer loss of stamina, often lead to severe symptoms.

The government has taken some measures like prohibiting burning of crops, tyres and waste to mitigate the effects of smog in Pakistan. It has also ordered to use zig zag technology in brick kilns. Meanwhile, there is a dire need of educating the masses for the disastrous effects of generating hazardous smoke on climate in the long term. Despite contributing fractionally to rising global temperatures, Pakistan cannot absolve itself from its environmental responsibilities.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Saudi Iran rivalry is easing, thanks to mediators

Hayat Bangash. 

The Saudi Iran rivalry is a political and economic struggle wherein sectarian differences have been exploited by both countries for geopolitical gains as part of a larger conflict. Most of the population of Iran is from Shia sect of Islam while Saudi Arabia, being the cradle of Islam and the land of holiest places for Muslim pilgrimages to perform their religeous obligation, sees itself as the leader of Sunni Muslims.

Saudi-Iran relations are seen at a new crossroad. Recent initiatives by the rulers on both sides show some willingness towards normalisation of a prolonged tension between the two arch rivals. Meanwhile, third countries with sizeable populations of both sects have also been engaged in cooling off the tensions. Notable efforts have been those by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan who visited Saudi Arabia in September this year on his way to New York and informed at UN General Assembly (UNGA) session that he was engaged in mediation between the two Muslim nations.

These efforts, as Mr Khan revealed, had a nod from US President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. Ever since his attempt, Saudi Arabia and Iran, encouragingly, haven’t engaged in any major diplomatic altercation.

Iran has not had formal relations with Saudi Arabia and its longtime ally Bahrain since they cut diplomatic relations in 2016 after Saudi embassy in Iran was torched by protesters. Tehran has, of late, repeatedly indicated willingness to resume talks as Washington has been blaming it over unrest at several places in the Gulf. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani even sent letters to leaders of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in a major patching up move. This came at a time when his top general claimed significant weakening of US dominance in the Middle East.

The latest mediation took place through Kuwait. Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) revealed, quoting the Kuwaiti Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled al-Jarallah, that the country had conveyed special messages from Iran to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Meanwhile, the Qatari foreign ministry spokeswoman Lolwah R M Al-Khater told Al-Monitor that Doha believes that Iran is willing to start constructive negotiations and her country is prepared to launch such talks to lower tensions in the region. This development shows that other Muslim states are also interested in seeing better relations between the two main players of the Middle East region.

With renewed rapprochement developments in the Saudi Iran rivalry, other states in the Persian Gulf too are upbeat on stability returning to the region. As the world moves to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, these oil rich nations are looking for new avenues for sustaining their economies. These efforts call for settling differences and charting joint strategies for the welfare of their people. Unnecessary spending on defence and related hardware is going to do nothing but bog down their economies.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

China makes headway in the 5G race

Javed Ali. 

In the 5G race, China has made a new headway by launching the service commercially. The new-age, cutting edge, high-speed communication is now available in 50 cities across the country. 

The service is only available in selected areas in the other two countries – the United States and South Korea – that offer 5G so far. Its grand rollout in China last week is unmatchable with what the others have achieved so far. 

The 5G tussle

The launch comes against the backdrop of US efforts to challenge China’s 5G ambitions. When President Donald Trump said that “the race to 5G is on and America must win”, he probably wanted to reach the finishing line first by not letting his competitor play. As he banned Huawei, the leading Chinese 5G infrastructure provider, from acquiring US technology and from letting it deploy its network in the US, China’s plans appeared to have hit a wall.

Huawei’s profits received a blow after the US ban but did not fall to a level where they could hamper its deployment plans. Not all countries share the US’s concerns about the possibility of backdoors in Huawei’s hardware and have decided to continue contracting the company. 

Huawei teamed up with China’s state-owned telecom operators, China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom, to bring 5G services to their subscribers inland and signed 60 contracts with carriers in other parts of the world. 

The 5G race is not a zero-sum game

As against the beliefs of President Trump, the 5G race is not something where a country has to lose for the other to win. The world is merely undergoing a technological upgrade that is, naturally, resulting in a competition. But history explains that 5G can be adopted through global cooperation just like technological upgrades of industrialization, computers and the internet were. 

Foundation of the ultimate medium of connectivity, the internet, lies is international collaboration. As we are increasing the speed of our connections with each other and with things, the need for working together is all the more important. 

The battle for technological supremacy stems global growth. It disallows developing countries to take advantage of the latest advancements in overcoming their problems. It also causes a diminishing of the cooperative spirit among the scientific community for employing their gains in tackling the day’s challenges. 

Europe is very much cognizant of this fact. It refused to ban Huawei despite extensive pressure and continues to partner with Chinese companies for the 5G deployment. There is a learn-learn approach in their collaborations, lifting industries of both regions. 

China’s acceleration of self-reliance

An unintended consequence of the 5G tussle between the US and China was an acceleration of the latter’s self-reliance efforts. Already acquiring an edge in the field of 5G, Chinese companies are now aiming to improve their chip-making capabilities. Since China is a major supplier of rare earth materials, it is only a matter of time that the hardware expertise of local companies rises at par with those in the US. 

Even the commercial launch of 5G services has been ahead of the schedule. Previously planned for release in 2020, last week’s announcement by the state-owned telecom operators came as a surprise for many industry observers. The acceleration of self-reliance efforts was not anticipated to be progressing at this pace. 

An innovative edge

A major contributive factor in China making headway in 5G is innovation being a national policy. Although the service has been commercially launched just now, it has been in medical and research use for quite some time. Hospitals and medical institutions have been using it to carry out remote surgeries and intelligent locomotive systems have been using it to transmit data to their analyzing systems. 

Owing to the innovation drive, top Chinese phone makers Huawei and Oppo have launched 5G enabled cell phones. US-based Apple is, however, yet to announce one. 

That’s because China has a clearly defined roadmap of how it wants to leverage innovation to be the global tech leader. A plan released in 2016 states that by 2030 it will be able to achieve its aim. 

The 5G race is not for a single country to win. It is the future of how mankind will connect. One nation’s win can be that of another as well. The need is to disengage from impeding achievements of perceived rivals and move forward with a joint multinational strategy.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Battling fake news in Thailand

Saleem Zahid. 

In battling fake news, Thailand has just upped the ante. By unveiling a center dedicated to finding and reacting to fake news online, it has offered hope to witch hunt survivors and, at the same time, spooked free speech activists. 

The stated areas in which the center will counter misinformation – and, of course, disinformation – are economy, finance, health, government policy and natural disasters. Whenever fake news will affect peace and security of the nation, the center will come into play. 

Concerns by rights groups

Rights groups and opposition political parties have expressed strong resentment against the anti-fake news center. Fearing a silencing of government critics, they are calling it a censorship tool in the hands of a government that doesn’t qualify as a true democracy in their view. 

Meanwhile, sending a sigh of relief, the ministers clarified that the center will not have any powers of arrest or legal action and later that it will not be “a tool to support the government or any individual”. If a false news item is detected through the center’s social listening system, it will be flagged to relevant authorities and corrections will be issued through the center’s social media platforms.

Still, an encouraging development 

Like many Asian countries, literacy levels in Thailand are not as high as those in advanced nations. Social media usage, the main vehicle of fake news, is meanwhile extremely high. This combination offers a fertile ground for the spread of unverified information. 

The developing world has been especially affected by the rise of fake news. A spate of lynchings in India, accusations on an array of entities in Sri Lanka after the Eastern bombings and, most distressingly, a genocide in Myanmar caused by the radicalization of a community otherwise considered peaceful.

Radicalism fueled by the internet is one of the main problems of the day since it quickly morphs to violence. Religious extremism in the Middle East was largely stimulated with propaganda content of extremists with half-baked facts mixed with entirely fabricated statistics. 

In the developed world, radicalism has mostly been race-based, yet instilled majorly by the fake news machinery. The algorithms of social media websites, that mold our newsfeeds into what we are supposed to like the most, do not differentiate between a healthy and unhealthy piece of content. Running in a closed hamster wheel of consuming radical content has the power of reinforcing a perfectly sane individual’s fringe ideas into hardcore beliefs and turning him into an extremist. 

On social media, the two most common sellable commodities are emotions and conspiracy theories. A growing number of people share news items without reading them because of strong emotions in the headlines or in the images attached with them. Likewise, conspiracy theories, sometimes outrageously intriguing, are shared by people thinking they are propagating a new angle to an issue or while simply considering themselves the first ones to break it to their social circle.

Thailand’s problem with fake news

Thailand has its peculiar problems with fake news. With laws that criminalize defamation of the royal family, the spread of incorrect information has been a source of polarization in the society. The same has been creating problems during the times of natural disasters and financial crises. 

Popular messaging apps in the country frequently hold “Stop Fake News” workshops aimed at enabling their users to stay safe on online platforms and check the propagation of “fake news” and misinformation.  

The paradox of battling fake news

When newspapers published false stories, their number was few and the public quickly earmarked them for resorting to such tactics. 

Now, however, every social media user is a media outlet in himself. He can start publishing the moment he logs on to the internet and, with the right ingredients, spread information, right or wrong, across the world. This unfathomable volume of publishers makes it important to keep a check on falsehood and fight for the truth. 

But who exactly is going to be the vanguard in the fight for the truth? Governments with their insatiable desires of stifling dissent and political opposition? Internet users with their influencing power behind a cloak of anonymity? Or the social media companies that have amassed powers on par with those of governments? 

This is a paradox the world is presently stuck in. Whether to let free speech flow into realms of falsehood or to introduce checks that have the potential to be misused. 

The biggest role in curbing fake news lies with the platforms that are used to spread them, – that is, the social media companies. In their quest for growth, they have expanded their user base to such a level that they are unable to moderate the content. Although Facebook boasts employing nearly 30,000 moderators it is still far from overcoming this problem.

The corporate sector worked hard to introduce a culture of social responsibility. But with the rise of internet 2.0, the preference of several companies shifted to expansion from their pledge to keep their customers in confidence. 

Some positive developments

After a considerable outrage over alleged foreign interference in the US presidential election of 2016, political advertising on social media has been a topic of fierce debate. Some candidates of the upcoming election have been accused of spreading lies in their advertisements, while others, to prove the point, deliberately put false information in their ads. 

Seeing the pressure developing, Twitter has announced an end to political advertising on its platform. Since it too has a large user base with limited resources of fact-checking, this is a positive development. 

Facebook, on the other hand, believes that it is for the citizens to decipher false information from the correct. Experts believe that the company cannot take this stance too far and will eventually succumb to the pressure building from politicians, media and its users. 

Establishing anti-fake news centers and introducing truth checking mechanisms by governments is a measure in the right direction only if the right to free speech is not suppressed. Equally important is the citizens’ right to access correct information. And for that, the responsibility lies with the government.

Friday, 1 November 2019

Reaching out to China with the situation in Hong Kong

Iram Khan. 

The situation in Hong Kong is a moment of reflection for countries that advertise their ethos as the only way for progress. We live in a pluralistic world that is an assortment of ideologies, creeds, and theories. It draws its greatness from contrast rather than from monotony of drilled down beliefs. 

Foreign elements that are trying to instill their own version of worldview into Hong Kong citizens have caused a massive loss to the city’s economy and suffering for the silent majority as well as for the vocal – and often violent – minority. Businesses are feeling the heat and the trading system has been severely affected. 

Before a point of no return is reached, the protesters need to recall how Hong Kong has seen exceptional prosperity under China and wields the potential to further expand its economy. Home to 7.5 million people, it also has to look after those among them who are underprivileged and are losing the most from the turmoil.

Ever since its accession, Hong Kong has been the bridge to China. The financial hub is a testing ground for first-time investors who want to experience Chinese culture and consumers’ response to new products and services. In 1997, it contributed to nearly one-fifth of China’s GDP. As it accelerated the opening up process manifold, many cities learned from Hong Kong and started contributing at a greater rate.

The special administrative privileges Hong Kong enjoys are provisioned under China’s right to incorporate policies as per its own peculiar conditions. The two systems, efficiently functioning side by side, prove that alternative models of development are very much practical. 

Hong Kong accelerated the opening up process of China manifold (Bloomberg Photo)
Hong Kong accelerated the opening up process of China manifold (Bloomberg Photo)

If there are any doubts about the Chinese model, they can be allayed after analyzing its successes. No other country has lifted as many people out of poverty as China has. Also, no other country is taking up technological innovation as a national priority in the manner China is. Its enterprises are spearheading the drive to deploy secure 5G networks and, second only to the US, its Artificial Intelligence capabilities are growing at an astounding pace. 

In addition to that, the negative list of sectors – where foreign investment is restricted – is continually shrinking. The GDP growth rate might appear to be slowing but would be calling for celebrations if the current figures were achieved elsewhere. In fact, the technological, social and economic improvements in China are paving the way for the world to move forward. Take for example the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), lifting infrastructure in developing countries to make them contributing players in global supply chains. 

During these years of advancement, China follows a policy of non-interference in other nations’ internal matters. Coming from a country that has maintained somewhat of an equilibrium between its engagements with the East and the West, the author has ample observation on how China’s approach towards inland policies of its partners is distinctive. 

When doing business, China treats laws, values, and traditions as the prerogative of the hosts. It does not tend to dictate how affairs of other territories should be run, what political setups should be adopted and by what means issues should be dealt with. Certain Western countries, however, are renowned for doing business abroad and bringing with them unsolicited advisories on social, economic, security and political practices. 

It needs to be understood that global governance has evolved from multi-polar to bi-polar to uni-polar and then back to multi-polar. The factors guiding the international order are now diverse. Despite the emergence of a relatively homogenized culture, civilizations are still retaining their unique characteristics with each offering lessons to learn. But believing that only one system can save us may be stemming our quest for making our planet a better place. 

What is required at present is a respectful regard to the values that have brought stability to places where they are in vogue. An understanding of the disparate world will form the basis of coexistence and highlight commonalities instead of enforcing own ideals. 

Our resources are limited. They may not last forever if we do not collaborate. While several Western economies are shrinking, they cannot afford the bygone Cold War in any form. Instead of fighting the so-called trade wars, growth needs to be stimulated as the scars of the 2008 recession are still fresh.       

Those who do not intend to keep the bridges to China open, despite the situation in Hong Kong, will miss out on the greatest success story we have ever seen. Seven decades ago, the Chinese nation avowed to rise. After experimenting, stumbling, and then rising while learning from mistakes, it wrote the history book of its prosperity. The rest of us need to maintain our connection with this civilization which is on the road to becoming the next beacon for the industrious world.

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