The World this Week

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The World this Week
The new Brexit crisis, India, China and the SCO meeting in Moscow, and the Wildfires in the US

  GP Team

The World This Week # 84, 12 September 2020, Vol 2, No 37

Sourina Bej, Samreen Wani, Rashmi Ramesh


BREXIT: UK's new bill renews the tensions with the EU

What happened? 
On 10 September, the European Union demanded that the UK should reconsider its plans to change the Withdrawal Agreement "by the end of the month" or "risk jeopardising trade talks." The ultimatum by the EU comes as the BREXIT trade talks are in the process and after two key announcements by Boris Johnson's government that have challenged the divorce treaty agreed with the EU early this year. 

On 9 September Boris Johnson proposed a draft Internal Market bill that will allow the UK government to change the customs laws in Northern Ireland thereby allowing itself a stronger role over trade rules in Scotland and Wales as well. Secondly, the government said the UK would not follow the EU rules for state aid which is a key stumbling block in the negotiations with the bloc till date. Instead, it will apply state aid rules agreed at the WTO level, which is less strict. 

Johnson's bill has been criticised as "embarrassing for the UK" as Former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Sir John Major urged the Parliament to reject the bill.

What is the background? 
First, the UK's attempt to revisit the Withdrawal Agreement. The proposed bill attempts to breach the binding withdrawal agreement which Westminster approved by majority votes in December 2019. The new bill allows the UK to unilaterally waive export controls and tariffs between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and withhold information on state aid from Brussels. With custom changes in Northern Ireland, the bill is likely to make the region the UK's only land border with the EU thereby also putting in question another agreement (the Good Friday Agreement) with the Republic of Ireland that aims to preserve the Irish identity and peace in the region. Under the withdrawal agreement, Northern Irish businesses would need to fill out customs forms when shipping goods to mainland Britain, but the new bill alters these custom rules and makes it uniform across the country, thus breaching the spirit, rules, and the trust agreed with the EU. 

Second, the bill questions the sanctity of the Good Friday Agreement. The new bill is also believed to breach the commitments made to protect the peace process and avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. While this bill is seen as critical to ensure unfettered movement of goods from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK, it also challenges the principle of devolution and local institutions in the region. The draft bill undermines the Good Friday Agreement that upholds the devolution of power in Northern Ireland and in the process protects the Irish identity. In economic terms, the legislation will also see Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland give up powers in areas such as air quality regulated at the EU level to completely comply with the standards adopted in different parts of the UK.

Third, the EU runs out of patience ironing out differences with the UK. As the UK attempts to revert the Withdrawal treaty agreed after three years of negotiation, the EU has toughened its position not to allow another digression from the UK. EU's ultimatum on Johnson's plans to override elements of the BREXIT withdrawal agreement reveals that trust in the UK has been "seriously damaged" and eroded over the past four years. With multiple deadline extensions and several political quagmires, the BREXIT process has indeed tested the patience of the EU and the people who still await clarity on mundane civic laws.

What does it mean? 
In relooking the Brexit withdrawal agreement, Boris Johnson has risked dividing the domestic political discussion over the likely future of a trade deal. Instead of ironing out the differences over fishing rights or investment terms, the political parties will now either support the bill or challenge Johnson for his inability to stand by the agreement. Furthermore, the collateral damage to the Good Friday agreement will also reopen historical questions between two communities, further diverting the BREXIT trade talks. Johnson's bill is likely to be defeated in the House of Lords as many veteran Tory leaders call the bill a matter of "principle, that the UK keeps its word internationally." 

At the same time, the UK's decision to apply the WTO framework raises serious questions like whether a framework meant to solve trade issues between two different nations be adept within the UK's unique four-nation system. 

The SCO Foreign Ministers meet in Moscow; India and China reach a five points consensus

What happened?
On 9 and 10 September 2020, the meeting between the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation took place in Moscow under the chairmanship of the Russian Federation. 

The meeting at Moscow saw an exchange of views on various regional and international issues. The SCO summit is scheduled in November via videoconference after delays caused due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The presidency of the SCO will then be passed over to Tajikistan.

From India, the meeting was attended by foreign minister Dr S Jaishankar, and it was the third time that India participated in the event as a full member of the SCO. This came just days after the meeting between Defence Ministers of the member states.

What is the background? 
First, the regional issues. Foreign Minister Dr Jaishankar held bilateral talks with his counterparts from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan on various bilateral and regional issues and reaffirmed belief in their strong partnerships. He also held an important meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that reflected India and Russia's Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership. 

In the backdrop of the recent rise in border tensions, Foreign Minister Jaishankar held a bilateral meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi at the sidelines of the summit. Both the countries announced that they had reached a five-point consensus after a 'frank and constructive' discussion. The points included an agreement to quickly disengage, have dialogue and communication through the Special Representative mechanism on the India-China boundary question, conclude new confidence-building measures to maintain and enhance peace and tranquillity in the border areas, and prevent differences turning into disputes. However, there was no clear indication of de-escalation or restoration of status-quo ante. Wang Dehua, a South Asia expert at Shanghai Municipal Centre for International Studies appreciated the significance of the meeting and said that it might pave the way for a future meet between President Xi Jinping and PM Modi. As Russia pushed for a dialogue between the two countries during a RIC meeting, it explicitly stated that it doesn't want to be forced to take sides. 

Second, international issues. Several transnational issues of illegal drug trafficking, international terrorism, organized crime and cybercrime were discussed in addition to developments in Afghanistan, Syria, the Middle East and North Africa. Also, the member states unanimously affirmed their commitment to the JCPOA. 

The meeting also emphasized the necessity of the Programme of Multilateral Trade and Economic Cooperation until 2035 for creating more favourable conditions for trade and investment and for stabilizing the world economy.

Noting the 75th anniversary of the founding of the UN, Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated Chinese support to multilateralism and called the US the 'biggest destroyer' of international order often at the cost of other smaller country's rightful self-interest. He also affirmed support for the core position of the UN and warned against dragging the world back to the 'law of the jungle' while giving five suggestions for strengthening cooperation within the SCO.

What does it mean?
Firstly, while the SCO might not be a perfect platform to resolve bilateral disputes, it most certainly provides a space for addressing differences in national and strategic interests between various regional players. Secondly, given the economic uncertainties lying ahead in the aftermath of the global pandemic and with the disruption of international trade making smaller countries even more vulnerable, the SCO can show the way in regional economic cooperation. Lastly, for the SCO to truly emerge as a successful regional organization, it should adhere to the principles of equality and mutuality between its members and be capable of addressing security and economic challenges of the region.

California: Wildfire continues to rage
What happened?
On 10 September, officials confirmed that the wildfire in North California had claimed ten lives so far, and 16 people were yet to be traced. It is estimated that at least 20 people have been killed across the Californian state. 

Favourable atmospheric conditions caused approximately 14000 lightning in a span of two days, resulting in one of the worst fires. Scu Lightning Complex (396,624 acres burnt), Lnu Lightning Complex (363,220 acres burnt), North Complex (252,534 acres burnt), Claremont-bear (252,178 acres burnt), Creek (175,893 acres burnt) are the five largest active fires in the state at present. Alongside California, states of Oregon and Washington are also battling massive wildfires. 

What is the background?
First, the cause of wildfires. An intense clockwise high-pressure system that was responsible for high temperature and dry conditions in the Western parts of the US drew moisture from the Pacific tropical storm Fausto. This atmospheric condition resulted in thunderstorms and intense lightning activity. According to a Los Angeles Times report, the heat in the lower levels of troposphere evaporated the rain from thunderstorms before it could reach the surface, a phenomenon known as 'virga'. Therefore, an exceptionally dry season, coupled with thunderstorms and lightning with negligible rains is said to be the major cause of the wildfire.

Second, the spread across the world. 2019-20, has witnessed record-breaking temperatures during summers, unusually warm winter and relentless warming of oceans. Brazil, Indonesia, Australia, Arctic, Canada, US, Sahel, southern parts of Africa recorded wildfires at a large scale. Most of them occur in Africa and South America; they go unnoticed, probably because it is common to practise slash and burn technique. 

Third, the link to climate change. Warmer temperatures cause excessive dryness. A rise in temperature implies a rise in the rate of evaporation, leading to more moisture drawn from soil and plants. Dry vegetation is usually more prone to fire. Dry weather also creates conditions conducive for the thriving of bark beetles which feed on and kill trees from within. Such dead trees are prone to fires. Climate change has resulted in an increase in the population of the beetles that destroy vegetation. While dry weather may be applicable to all the situations, there are region specific causes. For instance, wildfires in Southeast Asia are mostly caused by El-nino. 

What does it mean?
First, the response of the State. Governor of Oregon opined that "this could be the greatest loss of human life and property due to wildfire in our state's history." The priority of the state is to evacuate the population living dangerously close to the areas affected, rescuing people from towns and villages which have been burned down, and most importantly control the fire. Though the scale of preparedness does not match the scale of the disaster, the terrain for the troops has been the biggest challenge. The mere size of the disaster has humbled any disaster management operation. 

Second, the failure to learn from the past experiences. There is a need to learn from previous disasters and rebuild in a better and resilient manner. As more population in the US moves out of the urban areas, close to wilderness, it is important to implement stringent regulations for building/rebuilding infrastructure. In 2008, California laid down rules for building homes in fire-prone areas, including a "defensible space" with the absence of vegetation around the structure, access for water as an emergency measure and other minimum standards for fire-resistant construction. Such policies must be adopted in other states as well. 

Third, implementation of environmental-friendly policies is the only way forward. Leviathan-like disasters are causing irreparable damage across the world. As climate change narrows in, the level of disasters will also increase. The ability of the cope up with it will reduce. Therefore, sustainable development and eco-friendly policies are the need of the hour.


Also this week…

by Harini Madhusudan, Rashmi Ramesh and Vibhav Kandlur 

East and South-East Asia
China: Two Australian journalists flee  
On 8 September 2020, two Australian journalists Bill Birtles and Michael Smith, after being interrogated by the authorities in Beijing and Shanghai, immediately sought the help of Australian Diplomats and flew out of China. They were made to consent to questioning before they were allowed to leave. Amid the increasing tensions between China and Australia, the detainment of Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist, has gained importance in the past weeks. 

China: Beijing highlights an earlier Australian raid on Chinese Journalists 
After the two Australian journalists made a dramatic escape from China, the Foreign Ministry of China revealed that four Chinese journalists were interrogated by Australia in June 2020. Australia responded to this and confirmed that the raids were conducted on "suspicion of foreign interference" which they believed to be an attempt by the CCP to infiltrate the Parliament of New South Wales. 

South Asia This Week
India and China: Talks at the political level
External Affairs Ministers of India and China held talks in Moscow over the military standoff at the LAC in Eastern Ladakh. They agreed on a five-point action plan to disengage quickly and restore peace. The plan includes: "following the consensus between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping not to allow differences to become disputes; disengage quickly to ease tensions; abiding by the existing India-China border protocols and avoiding escalatory action; continuing the dialogue between the Special Representatives, National Security Advisors, as well as the other mechanisms; and working towards new confidence-building measures." This was the second high-level talks at the political level, the first one being the talks between the defence ministers of both countries. 

Afghanistan: Intra-Afghan negotiations begin at Doha
The much-awaited talks between Afghanistan government and Taliban representatives began on 12 September in Doha, Qatar. The opening remarks were made by the chairperson of Afghanistan High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Taliban deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani. Foreign ministers of Qatar, Pakistan, India and Turkey welcomed the beginning of talks between the warring parties and called for a political solution for a conflict of over two decades. 

India: Discussions during in SCO meeting
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar attended the SCO meet at Moscow. It laid the foundation for the forthcoming SCO Summit and discussed certain important regional and global issues. On the sidelines of the SCO meet, Indian and Chinese Defence and Foreign Ministers held talks with an aim to reduce tensions at the LAC. Russia-India-China meet and talks between India and Tajikistan were also held. 

Pakistan: The Foreign Minister attends SCO meet, reiterates Pakistan's One China approach.
Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi attended the SCO's Council of Foreign Minister in Moscow. He separately held talks with his Chinese and Russian counterparts on the sidelines of the SCO meet. He reiterated Pakistan's commitment to One China Policy and to China's core interests. Pakistan and Russia discussed COVID-19, matters of bilateral relations and regional issues. Islamabad is likely to participate in the forthcoming Kavkaz military exercise that is scheduled to be held in Russia. 

The Middle East and Africa This Week
Bahrain: Resetting bilateral relations with Israel
Bahrain has agreed to normalize its relationship with Israel, in a deal brokered by the United States. A joint statement was made where the US, Israel and Bahrain said: "opening direct dialogue and ties between these two dynamic societies and advanced economies will continue the positive transformation of the Middle East and increase stability, security, and prosperity in the region." On 3 September 2020, Bahrain announced that its airspace would permit all flights flying to Abu Dhabi, indirectly signalling to open doors for Israeli flights to operate. Palestine has expressed its displeasure as a result. 

Ethiopia: Tigray holds elections in defiance of the Prime Minister 
Despite the PM of Ethiopia dismissing Tigray polls as a 'shanty election', and federal officials saying the polls have 'no legal basis,' the governing party in the Northern Tigray region has won all the seats in elections, thickening an already hostile relationship with the federal government. This election marks a low point in the bitter dispute between the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Tigray, which dominated Ethiopian politics for 30 years after which Abiy came to power in 2018. 

Europe and the Americas 
Greece: Fire in Lesbos leaves thousands of asylum seekers shelter less 
A series of fires in the Moria Camp in Lesbos, with a capacity of 2,750, but held over 12,000 people was damaged by fire earlier this week. The camp was put under a lockdown until mid-September after 35 people from the camp tested positive in the camp. With the camp gutted, thousands of people were seen sleeping under makeshift roofs with authorities scrambling to set up a temporary shelter on the island. There were also signs of protest among a group of the residents who demanded to be moved outside the island. The incident brings to light the management of the migrant crisis in Europe. 

Belarus: Opposition figures arrested for "security probe"
Maxim Znak and Maria Kolesnikova were detained this week and are being held in custody on suspicion of 'destabilizing the country and harming national security.' Belarus' investigative committee stated that the arrests were part of an ongoing "national security" probe. Majority of the members of the Coordination Council has been detained or arrested on similar grounds. Over 600 people have been arrested throughout the week, among the people who have been protesting against the results of the elections in Belarus for almost a month now. 

Columbia: Riots in Bogota after an unarmed man was killed by the police
An unarmed man was killed during an encounter after repeatedly being hit by a stun gun by the police. Violent protests erupted in Bogota against the police action and have left five more people dead and up to 50 people severely injured. Protesters took to the social media to allege that the police had tried to run over the protestors and had used excessive force, including shooting people dead. Thirty police officers are also reported to be injured, and the protests have spread to the other cities in Columbia. 

The US: New book says Trump played down the COVID threat
According to a new book by veteran journalist Bob Woodward, Trump knew the intensity of the virus by February 2020 itself, but deliberately underplayed the threat. According to Woodward, Trump said in early February: "This is deadly stuff... It's also more deadly than even your strenuous flu." Trump, in his response to the above, has said: "I don't want people to be frightened, I don't want to create panic, as you say, and certainly I'm not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy...We want to show confidence; we want to show strength. Joe Biden, in his tweet, has accused Donald Trump of failing to do his job. He has remarked: "He lied to us for months. And while a deadly disease ripped through our nation, he failed to do his job — on purpose. It was a life or death betrayal of the American people."

The US: Remembering the 9/11, after 19 years and during a pandemic
On 11 September, the US remembered the killing of more than 3000 people in the terrorist attacks in 2001. Family members, political leaders and others remembered the day at the Ground Zero, and also in other places. Vice President of the US, and Joe Biden took part in the memorial in New York, while the Congress leaders observed a moment of silence at Washington DC. President Trump took part in the anniversary at Pennsylvania.

About the Authors 
Sourina Bej is a Project Associate at NIAS. Samreen Wani is a MA in International Studies from Stella Maris College. Rashmi BR is a PhD scholar at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS. 

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