The World this Week

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The World this Week
The Second COVID Wave in Europe, Japan's rapprochement in East Asia and a SAARC summit in South Asia

  GP Team

The World This Week # 86, 26 September 2020, Vol 2, No 39

Sourina Bej, Harini Madhusudan, and Rashmi Ramesh

Europe: The Second Wave of COVID-19, and calls for a second lock down
What happened? 
Europe is experiencing a second wave of the COVID-19 infections after the countries in the region flattened the curve since May. Spain, France, and the UK are currently at the forefront of the second wave. 

On 25 September, Spain imposed targeted local restrictions in response to the record 14,389 daily cases. In Madrid, which accounts for a third of its cases, residents in 37 areas are only allowed to leave their homes for work, school, or for medical reasons, and parks and playgrounds will be closed from 28 September. 

On 22 September, the UK has announced fresh restrictions on social gathering in pubs and movement of people as the country reported 6,178 new coronavirus cases in this week, the highest figure since 1 May. In his speech, the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said "I am sorry to say that as in Spain and France and many other countries. We have reached a perilous turning point," and the country will consider employing stricter inspection in case of violations of the rules. 

On 22 September, the COVID cases reported across Europe have reached a record high of 52,418 over a seven-day average, according to CNN analysis of Johns Hopkins University data. But there were just 556 new deaths reported, compared with a height of 4,134 daily fatalities (from 31,852 cases) from the seven-day average in the first wave in April. 

What is the background? 
First, rapid infections and low deaths. Measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing have become the norm in most European countries, and the latest spread of infection has been primarily among younger people, who are less likely to die if they contract the virus. However, fatigue with social-distancing rules and mask-wearing amongst the youth has also been the main driver of infections in this second wave. The health experts have also cautioned against the fast spread of infections amongst the people. In the first week of September, the biggest proportion of new cases was still among 25 to 49-year-olds, according to the World Health Organization's Europe director, Hans Kluge. 

Second, the ability to respond has improved. Europe's hospitals are now better equipped for treating COVID-19 with more testing centers. Hospitals are better able to diagnose and treat the virus, meaning mortality rates for ICU patients in some European countries have dropped from about 50 per cent during the spring to roughly 20 per cent. However, the second wave before the flu season will substantially increase the burden on health services. In France, the number of people in intensive care has increased by 25 per cent than the first wave. The pressure on hospitals has also increased by the number of "long-haulers," those who are suffering adverse effects from coronavirus more than a month after they were ill. "Even in younger and fitter, people are having longer-term consequences beyond the initial infection, which has led to filling up of the hospitals to its fullest capacity. Spain has now opted for field hospitals that could work from a few hotels to provide for hospital care. 

Third, the movement of people as the cause: The European governments and citizens wanting to avoid returning to the full-blown lockdowns of early 2020 have now relatively eased the travel. The tourism-dependent economies like Greece and Portugal had also resumed receiving travellers with ample precautions. However, replacing business closures and stay-at-home orders, which broke the pandemic's first wave in Europe, with the opening of restaurants and less ground inspection is faring for the second wave. 

What does it mean? 
From Madrid to the English Midlands, local interventions like restrictions on social gatherings and travel have arrested the upward curve, but the curve is on the rise again. Risking another damage to the economy through lockdown will not be something the countries will adopt. At the same time restrictions in the hyper-connected cities such as Madrid or London are unlikely to be effective, since thousands will continue to commute every day while transmission levels rise. In these scenarios, the second wave will potentially transit the countries to the summer months and be ready for another economic response. The EU recovery fund has been installed to return from the first wave and also prepare for another wave. The countries are dealing with fast-changing and conflicting evidence on how quickly new cases are translating into hospital admissions. It remains to be seen whether Europe will be the lesson one more time in flattening the second wave. 

East Asia: The new Japanese Prime Minister talks to the South Korean President
What happened?
On 24 September, the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and the South Korean President Moon Jae-in held a telephone conversation, marking the first interaction between the two leaders since Suga took office. Both sides have established the need to reset bilateral ties adding that the two countries are extremely important neighbours who must work together with the US to deal with the common issues that face them. 

Yoshihide Suga also held telephonic conversations with the leadership of India and China during the week. 

What is the background?
First, historical relations and the 1965 pact. Both countries share a complicated history. Imperial Japan forced people from the Korean island to work as labours in factories and mines and even made some enlist as soldiers when they were mobilizing for the world war. Japan is also known to have sent thousands of women from across Asia during the World War. Referred to as "comfort women", this has been an issue ever since. Though the Japanese rule ended in 1945, it was only in 1965  that the two countries through a treaty restored diplomatic ties after which the Japanese provided more than $800m (£620m) financial help. 

Second, economic interdependence. Japan and South Korea depend on each other for crucial materials for their industries, that include semiconductors and semiconductor manufacturing devices, flat panel display manufacturing devices, fine chemical materials, and optical devices. Japan is a dominant producer of those materials which are vital in the making of memory chips and display screens that are key industry supplies to South Korea. Apart from electronic supplies, the two countries have extensive economic interdependence in travel, food and culture, entertainment, clothing and myriad business collaborations. 

Third, deep-rooted public sentiments. In August 2019, the relations between the two countries worsened when some citizens from South Korea called for boycotting Japanese goods. The strong sentiments expressed by the people led to the governments announcing further restrictions against each other. In South Korea, there is a strong sentiment, that Japan shows no remorse over its wartime aggression or mistreatment of the comfort women.

Fourth, the court ruling in October 2018 and the worsening of relations. A Court in South Korea ordered the Japanese steelmaker to compensate four Korean citizens for labour during Japan's colonial rule. Tokyo refused to honour this ruling citing the 1965 agreement. As a response, Japan restricted exports of essential industrial material to South Korea, hitting the country's tech industry. In July 2019, trade tensions began with Japan's decision to place national security restrictions on the export of three critical chemicals for the production of semiconductors. Subsequently, both countries announced the removal of each other from the "white list" of trusted partners. Both the countries also announced an end to their intelligence-sharing pact. 

What does it mean?
The two sides have different positions on numerous issues, that have become emotional over the years. 
The telephone interaction places hopes that Seoul and Tokyo will look for solutions, where the two countries would find a middle-ground to a constructive relationship. This can be seen as the primary move of Suga in trying to put things in order after taking office, by prioritizing the issues of the region and identifying the need to cooperate. 

South Asia: Finally, a SAARC meeting
What happened?
During 24-26 September, a virtual meet between the foreign ministers of the eight SAARC countries was held. COVID-19 and its management were the primary focus of the meeting. The agenda to hold the 19th SAARC Summit in Pakistan failed to gain consensus from the member states once again. With a need to focus on the pandemic in respective countries, the Summit has been put on hold. 

According to a press release: "The Hon'ble Ministers also emphasized the need to work collectively to overcome the adverse impacts of the pandemic in the region. In this context, they appreciated the initiative of the Hon'ble Prime Minister of India in convening the SAARC Leaders' Video Conference on COVID-19 in March this year."

What is the background?
First, recent history highlights the regional organization's inability to hold annual summits. SAARC was established in 1985; however, there have been only 18 annual summits. A crisis as big as the COVID-19 also has failed to bring the eight countries on board for a formal summit to take forward regional cooperation.

Second, the absence of regional spirit. South Asia, as a region, has never been known for its regional identity. National identities are always placed above the South Asian identity. Though the countries have several similarities on the social, economic, historical and cultural front, a common binding identity is absent. This has been a hindrance for the functioning of SAARC, since the time of its establishment. 

Third, in South Asia, bilateral relations are prioritized over the regional. The member states engage bilaterally in order to address issues, particularly matters relating to security. While India-Pakistan relations continue to plague the SAARC, India's relations with Nepal and Bangladesh have also witnessed a downturn. Economic issues and cooperation are also dealt at the bilateral level. Trade within South Asia is negligible when compared to other regions of the world.  

What does it mean?
First, though SAARC is not the only organization to not come together during the pandemic, COVID-19 has further exposed the lack of confidence in regional institutions and arrangements in South Asia. The response to the crisis has been mostly individual, rather than a united front at regional and international levels. 

Second, the member states are looking beyond the SAARC. The member states are looking up to external players like China, Japan and ASEAN for economic collaborations and aid. India is focusing on its policy towards ASEAN, Indo-Pacific and BIMSTEC in particular. 

Third, the intent for and sustenance of cooperation. The perennial question in the region is whether cooperation can be sustained. India's size, its intent and its bilateral relations have played a role in SAARC's performance.

Also Read….
by Harini Madhusudan and Rashmi Ramesh

East Asia and South East Asia This Week
Yoshihide Suga calls Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping 
On 25 September, Yoshihide Suga held telephonic interactions with Narendra Modi and subsequently with Xi Jinping placing emphasis on the stability of ties between the two nations and the stability of the region. Japan and India discussed the importance of a "free and open Indo-Pacific," among other issues. Japan and China agreed on the intent to pursue high-level contacts and closely cooperate to stabilize the thorny relations between the two. 

Kim Jong Un issues a rare apology for the killing of a South Korean Official
On 22 September, an unarmed South Korean civil servant was shot by North Korean soldiers who, later, incinerated his body. On 25 September, North Korea's Unification Front Department issued a letter to President Moon Jae-In's Office expressing regret, "I have apologetic thoughts to President Moon Jae-in and compatriots of the South for the unfortunate incident that took place in our waters." The quick response shows an effort by  North Korea to maintain status quo between the two Koreas and keep international criticism away from the incident. 

The Philippines: Duterte's statement on South China Sea
On 22 September, Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte firmly supported the judgement pronounced by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the South China Sea dispute. Speaking at the virtual summit of the UN General Assembly, he said that the "award is a part of the international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish, or abandon. We firmly reject attempts to undermine it." 
The statement reflects Manila's hardening stance on the dispute, after getting close to China in recent years. China's increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea is one of the probable reasons for the Philippines to take this position. 

Thailand: Women join protests in large numbers
On 24 September 2020, the New York Times published a report highlighting the increasing role of women in Thailand protests. Young women who are mostly students, have led the demonstrations and have included gender issues, among others. Their demands include issues relating to democracy, transparency, patriarchy, monarchy, reproductive rights, dress codes etc.

Malaysia: Power struggle continues
On 25 September, a palace official said that the King would not be granting audience to anyone for a week, as he is recuperating at a hospital. This means the power struggle in Malaysia would continue. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim sought a meeting with the King to form a new government. Ibrahim said that he has the support of the majority of legislators and is in a position to remove Muhyiddin Yassin from power. This comes seven months after a power struggle that led Muhyiddin to become the Prime Minister.  

South Asia This Week 
Sri Lanka: 20th Amendment Bill tabled in the Parliament
On 22 September, the government tabled the 20th Amendment Bill aimed at reversing the provisions of the 19th Amendment and giving sweeping powers to the President. Though the government formed a committee to look into the concerns expressed by some sections of the public, political activists and opposition parties, it is unclear if those concerns will be addressed in the bill. The opposition parties filed cases in the Supreme Court, against the government over tabling the 20th Amendment. Calling it as a step towards autocracy, the parties called for a national referendum. However, the Attorney General said the 5 August mandate enables the government to take steps towards changing the Constitution. 

India and China: Sixth round of talks at the military level
On 21 September, India and China held the sixth round of Corps Commander-level talks at Moldo on the Chinese side of the LAC. The joint statement pronounced that "no more troops would be sent to the frontline" and that both sides would "refrain from unilaterally changing the situation on the ground". There was also an agreement to hold more talks to resolve the issue. For the first time, a Joint Secretary from the Ministry of External Affairs took part in the talks. This hints at the possibility of taking the military and political-level negotiations forward together. 

India and Sri Lanka: Modi and Rajapaksa conversations
On 26 September, PM Modi and PM Rajapaksa held virtual talks discussing bilateral relations, COVID-19 and economics and regional issues. India extended $15 million to Sri Lanka for promotion of Buddhist culture, renovating monasteries, and supporting Buddhist clergy. New Delhi also extended a line of credit to support three solar power projects in Sri Lanka. The two leaders are also in talks for $1.1 billion bilateral currency swap.  Modi raised the issue of Sri Lankan Tamils and requested the government to work towards realizing their expectations and aspirations. Rajapaksa is expected to raise the issue of Indian fishermen entering into the Sri Lankan waters and using banned methods of fishing. 

Nepal: Government stops the distribution of textbook having new political map
On 22 September 2020, Kathmandu Post reported that on Nepal stopping the distribution of a textbook that was released earlier. The 110-page textbook carried the new political map of the country showing the disputed territories- Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyudhara. The circulation has been stopped after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Land Management and Cooperatives expressed reservations on the changes in the book that were made by the Ministry of Education. 

Pakistan: In a strong statement against the Establishment, Nawaz Sharif refers to a "State above the State"
On 20 September, former PM Nawaz Sharif speaking to the All Parties Conference, Sharif accused the military of staging an undeclared coup and influencing elections to bring Imran Khan's PTI to power.  The All Parties Conference has called for a Pakistan Democratic Movement. It has demanded the resignation of PM Imran Khan, the investigation into the allegations that Lt. Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa (retired) used his position in the army for his personal benefits, and called for fresh elections.  Nawaz Sharif's speech was criticized by the Prime Minister, saying that he represented India's narrative and aimed to create differences between the government and military. However, this speech is considered as one of the most powerful speeches in recent years, highlighting the political problems that Pakistan faces. 

The Middle East This Week 
Hamas, Fatah agree to hold Palestinian elections 
During this week, in their talks in Istanbul, long-time rivals Fatah and Hamas agree to hold the legislative elections followed by the Presidential elections and the elections for the National council of the parliament of the Palestinian Liberation Organization after nearly 15 years. The two groups are known to be rivals since 2007 but have reached a consensus to schedule the elections in six months. They have also stated that the elections would include Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip and called the ongoing negotiations, "positive, fruitful, and productive." 

Europe and the Americas This Week 
France: Two people wounded after a stabbing attack in Paris 
On 25 September, two people were wounded and seven were taken to custody when an attacker, outside the former office of the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, stabbed them with a meat cleaver. The attack is seen as a show of anger over the recent republishing of the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. The counter-terrorism authorities in France are investigating it as an Islamic extremist attack. 

Russia: Putin proposes a pact of election non-interference with the US 
On 25 September, Putin, citing the "risk of large-scale confrontation in the digital sphere," proposed a pact with the US to avoid interfering in each other's elections and other domestic affairs. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov read out the statement on his visit to the massive military drills involving China and Iran in southern Russia. The US has been citing Russian, Chinese and Iranian hackers as potential interference with the elections in November. 

The US: Amy Coney Barrett is expected to take the place of Ruth Bader Ginsberg at the Supreme Court 
US President Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to be the new Supreme Court Judge. She is known to be a favourite among the social conservatives, marking 6-3 majority of conservative-leaning justices. Through the coming week, the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to review the nominee, after which the nomination would be sent to the Senate for a vote. After Ginsburg's death, the nomination to the position 39 days before the elections has attracted strong criticism, with Joe Biden calling it an "abuse of power."

The US: Questioning the integrity of the elections, Trump faces a question on the smooth transfer of power
On 23 September President Trump said "I've been complaining very strongly about the ballots. And the ballots are a disaster," to a question that asked if he would commit to a peaceful transition if he loses the elections. And on 25 September, at a public rally stated that he would welcome "a smooth, beautiful transition" of power after the election in November. However, he believes that he would lose only if the Democrats cheated, and said, "we're not going to stand for it if they did."

The US: Breonna Taylor verdict and the protests after 
The grand jury charged the police officer, Brett Hankison not with Ms Breonna Taylor's death, but with "wanton endangerment" for firing into a neighbour's apartment in Louisville. The other two officers involved in the death have not been charged. This decision by the jury prompted protests across Louisville which led to arrests of 24 people on charges including unlawful assembly, failure to disperse and riot in the first degree.

Brazil: Volkswagen to pay compensation to Brazil regime victims 
Volkswagen is among the 120 or more companies that have been implicated in crimes committed by the regime in Brazil which was known which abducted, tortured and killed suspected leftist "subversives" known as one of the darkest chapters of the Cold War in Brazil. Volkswagen announced on 23 September it had signed a historic deal with state and federal prosecutors in Brazil to pay 36 million reais ($6.4 million) in compensation for its part in the atrocities of that era. Other companies include Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Esso, Texaco and Pirelli.

About the authors

Sourina Bej is a Project Associate at NIAS. Harini Madhusudan and Rashmi Ramesh are PhD Scholars with the School of Conflict and Security Studies at NIAS. 

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