Conflict Weekly 37

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Conflict Weekly 37
Six million COVID cases in India, Abdullah Abdullah's visit to Pakistan, China's naval exercises in four seas, and the new tensions in Nagorno Karabakh

  IPRI Team

IPRI Conflict Weekly, 01 October 2020, Vol.1, No.37

Rashmi B R, Lakshmi V Menon, Teshu Singh, Jason Wahlang, Abigail Miriam Fernandez and Sourina Bej

India crosses 6 million-mark in COVID-19 cases
In the news
On 28 September, India crossed the six million mark in the number of COVID-19 cases. The last one million cases were recorded in just 12 days. In August, it recorded a massive spike in the number of cases, with daily numbers touching 90000. ICMR's second survey highlighted that approximately "seven per cent of India's adult population was exposed to COVID-19 till the last fortnight of August."

Issues at large
First, the level of testing and contact tracing. Testing rates in India have increased manifold when compared to May and June. On 28 September, cases dropped below 70,000 for the first time in September. This coincided with a sharp drop in tests conducted. On 27 September, less than 7.1 lakh tests were conducted, the lowest since 23 August. However, every state has different levels of testing. Maharashtra, Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh account for the greatest number of cases. As a region, South India seems to be the most affected in terms of the caseload. The second sero-survey said that the government directed substantial efforts in testing and contact tracing. While there were "81-130 undetected infections per reported case in May, there were 26-32 such cases in August." This indicates success in the testing and contact testing strategy.

Second, the impact of relaxing lockdown. To keep the economy alive, the government relaxed the stringent lockdown measures. This directly contributed to the rise in cases since May. However, despite the criticism of lacking basic infrastructure, India's health sector has risen up to the situation and has responded positively, though its resources have been stretched to a large extent.

Third, India's numbers at the global level. India is the second most affected country after the US, in terms of the caseload. The death rate, however, is lower than that of the US and Brazil, the third most affected country. The case fatality rate (CFR) stands at 1.57 per cent, much lower than the global CFR 3.2 per cent. The government aims to bring the CFR to 1 per cent.

In perspective
First, the focus is on reducing the number of deaths. The government's strategy is to ensure that the number and percentage of deaths due to COVID-19 remains low. The emphasis is on the high recovery rates, rather than the number of cases, to ensure that there are a smaller number of active cases, thereby reducing the pressure on the health sector.
Second, the need to revisit urban planning and the pressure on big cities. ICMR noted that the people living in urban slums are most prone to risk of contracting the virus. The risk in urban slums is twice that of non-slum urban centres and four times that of the rural areas. This necessitates a relook into India's urban planning strategy and ensure development in a way that does not overburden the cities and their resources.

Afghanistan: In a bid for peace, Abdullah Abdullah concludes a three days visit to Pakistan 
In the news
During the week, the Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR) of Afghanistan Abdullah Abdullah completed his three days visit to Pakistan. Along with a high-level delegation of HCNR members, he met Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, President Arif Alvi, Prime Minister Imran Khan, besides meeting the Senate Chairman and Speaker of National Assembly during his visit. Speaking in Islamabad, Abdullah Abdullah said Pakistan and Afghanistan are nurturing a new relationship characterized by "mutual respect, sincere cooperation and shared prosperity." Meanwhile, Pakistan's top officials have reiterated their strong and complete support for "the peace, stability and prosperity of the Afghan people."

Issues at large
First, the rocky Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. Kabul have for long accused Islamabad of backing Taliban rebels in order to limit India's influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan however, has denied these allegations and in turn accused Afghanistan of facilitating anti-Pakistan rebels on Afghan soil. Both rubbish the other's accusations.

Second, the ongoing Doha peace talks. The visit comes soon after the commencement of the Afghan peace talks in Doha, between Afghan and Taliban negotiators, on 12 September. The desired outcomes from the talks include a power-sharing deal and an agreement on a lasting ceasefire. The deal signed between the Taliban and the US in Qatar in February 2020 preceded the recent dialogue. The Taliban's armed rebellion has cost Afghanistan dearly since the ousting of the armed group by the US-led invasion in 2001. 

Third, the impending US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Prime Minister Imran Khan, in his recent op-ed for the Washington Post, has cautioned that a "hasty international withdrawal from Afghanistan would be unwise." A rushed withdrawal for the purpose of Trump's re-election would be catastrophic for Afghanistan and South Asia at large. Khan also urged Afghanistan to "cut violence" and utilize the opportunity to "work together constructively and secure an inclusive, broad-based and comprehensive political settlement."

In perspective
Abdullah's visit will be a "moment of opportunity" that also according to the Foreign Ministry of Pakistan "will provide an opportunity for a wide-ranging exchange of views on the Afghan peace process and strengthen Pakistan-Afghanistan bilateral relations and people-to-people interactions." However, the bogging down on the negotiation's principles and procedures by the conflicting parties even before discussing the agendas has left optimists wary.

Amid escalating tensions, China conducts simultaneous naval exercises in four Seas
In the news
During the week, ahead of the National Day, China held five military exercises in four seas simultaneously. Among them were; two exercises held in the South China Sea, one in the East China Sea, Bohai Sea and the Yellow Sea. The exercises were announced last month. China also conducted large-scale military drills across Taiwan Strait for two consecutive days to express its discontent towards increasing US-Taiwan ties.

Issues at large
First, in the South China Sea, China conducted naval drills near the Paracel/Xisha Island. It was the third time that China carried out exercises this year in the disputed island. The previous two exercises were on 18 June and 1 July 2020. During the exercise, for the first time, the Chinese navy sent two carriers, Liaoning and Shandong, to the sea at the same time. The exercises were also held in the East China Sea and the Bohai Sea, where a live-fire combat exercise was conducted. In the Yellow Sea, the People's Liberation Army Navy held a large-scale, live ammunition operation. 

Second, the increasing number of exercises in the Sea. This is the second time in two months that concurrent exercises were held but with different arrangements. As the exercises were held against the rising temperature of the regions, all the other ships were prohibited from entering the area. The objective of the exercises was to strengthen China's combat training and drill to prepare for any contingency in these regions. Reportedly, such exercises are meant to test and foster sea-denial or sea control capabilities. 

The exercises can also be seen as a response to the recent Rim of Pacific 2020 naval exercise. The participants in the exercise were Australia Brunei, Canada, France, Japan, New Zealand, Republic of the Philippines, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Singapore and the US. The developments in Taiwan has also irked China and it has conducted a series of military exercise near the Taiwan Strait, violating the Taiwanese air zone as many as 46 times in nine days. 

Third, the response from the US. The US has sharply criticized the drills and sent the spy planes into a no-fly zone over Chinese live-fire military drills. The US state department said: China has "pursued a reckless and provocative militarisation of the South China Sea" and the Communist Party of China does not stick to its words.

In perspective
In 2017, Xi Jinping had set the target of modernizing the People's Liberation Army by 2035 and to make it into a top-ranked military by 2050.  Amid the COVID-19, Xi has reiterated that China should "prepare for war". With these targets in mind, the exercises were held to intimidate the smaller countries in the region that are involved in territorial disputes with China. The drills had signalled for both Taiwan and the US. Thus, the intension of the drills was to show the Chinese capability to mobilize its forces from multiple locations.

Nagorno Karabakh: Tensions increase, between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenia
In the news
Since 27 September, tensions have escalated between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the contentious Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh for Armenians). Both have blamed each other for the conflict, especially the Armenians blaming the Azeris for shelling the capital of Nagorno Karabakh Stepanakert. Azerbaijan has stated that it was a counter-offensive to Armenian aggression. Currently, both countries have imposed martial law. 

The United Nations have condemned the actions of both countries and asked for de-escalation of the tensions. 

Issues at large
First, the territorial contention, with both countries initiating claim over Nagorno Karabakh. While Armenia feels that the region belongs to it, due to a large Armenian population, Azerbaijan takes a more historical route stating that the region was given to them during the Soviet period. Armenia has been supporting the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh, while Azerbaijan has been emphasizing that the region is internationally recognized as part of its territory. 

Second, the long history of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, that remains unresolved since the Soviet era. The Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh view that after 1994 ceasefire and conflict, the region came under the indirect control of Armenia. The region is highly dependent on Armenia and in many ways administered as part of the country. The population mainly belonging to ethnic Armenians feel that if Azerbaijan controlled the region, it would have devastating impacts on their ethnic identities and most would prefer to reunify with Armenia to feel protected. This conflict from the Soviet period to the 1990s with recent escalations in 2016 have deterred peace in the Caucasus.

Third, external involvement is escalating the conflict. The Armenians have accused Turkey of supplying military equipment to Azerbaijan in the recent conflict. Armenians have faulted Turkey for the genocide during 1915-16. The Armenians today feel the Turks want to complete the genocide by using Azerbaijan in the regional conflict. Azerbaijan shares historical and cultural links with Turkey has sought its support over the conflict as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have also called on Armenia to end the occupation over the region for peace.

Russia remains another major actor in the region and has appealed for peace between the two countries. Russia shares a strong relationship with both countries, such as a defence alliance with Armenia and close political relations with Azerbaijan. Russia also has military bases in Armenia. If the conflict further escalates, Russia would be openly involved in the conflict which at present it wants to avoid.

In perspective
As the conflict escalates, both countries need to find a way to stop this from spiralling. The international community must also assist in the de-escalation process. The status quo needs to be maintained, similar to what occurred in the 1990s.

Also read
Peace and Conflict in Southeast and East Asia 
Japan: The new PM calls for better ties with South Korea's President Moon Jae-in
On 23 September, Japan's new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, called for better ties with South Korea in talks with President Moon Jae-in, the first in months and a week after Suga took office. "To President Moon, I said we must not leave unattended the current extremely difficult bilateral relations, which are being harmed by various problems," Suga told reporters at his office in Tokyo, also making it clear that it is now up to Seoul to join hands in resolving the disputes, including those over compensation for forced labour by Japan during its wartime occupation.

North Korea: In a rare act, Kim Jong-un apologizes for killing South Korean official
On 25 September, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has issued a personal apology for the killing of a South Korean official, said Seoul. Kim reportedly told South Korean leader Moon Jae-in that the "disgraceful affair" should not have happened. South Korea said a 47-year-old man was found by troops floating in the North's waters and was then shot dead. This is the first killing of a South Korean citizen by North Korean forces in a decade that has caused an outrage in the South.

Peace and Conflict in South Asia 
Northeast India: MHA extends the ban on Nagaland armed group NSCN-K
On 28 September, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in India, in a notification issued, has extended the ban on the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) by notifying it as an "unlawful association" under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). The ministry thought that since it was first banned in 2015 after abrogating the ceasefire with Government of India, the insurgent group has been involved in 104 violent incidents, resulting in the death of seven security personnel and six civilians, and abduction of 75 civilians. The extension of the ban on the group comes at a time when NSCN (I-M), another spinster group, is in peace talks with the Centre. 

India-China: Beijing has not recognized the Union Territory Ladakh, says Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson  
On 29 September, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin was quoted by Press Trust of India as saying, "China has not recognized the Union Territory of Ladakh illegally set up by the Indian side." Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi earlier this month had raised hopes that tensions along the Line of Actual Control could ease soon. However earlier this week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin made several statements — from opposing infrastructure development in border areas to saying that China does not recognize the Union Territory of Ladakh that has only served to negate the slight thaw in relations between the two countries that had been achieved as a result of talks between Jaishankar and Wang Yi. 

India: SC seeks J&K administration's response to Mehbooba Mufti detention plea 
On 29 September, the Supreme Court asked the Solicitor General of India the following questions on keeping Mehbooba Mufti under detention since August 2019: "You should address us on two issues: What is the maximum period for which a person can be detained and what is your proposal and how long do you propose to continue the detention." Mehbooba Mufti, the former Chief Minister of J&K, has been kept under detention since August 2019. While the government also had arrested other leaders belonging to regional parties in J&K, during the last few months, most of them were released. Mufti is the only senior leader, who is still under detention.

India: A CBI trial court gives clean chit to all on the Babri Masjid demolition case
On 30 September, a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court gave its verdict in the nearly three-decade-old Babri Masjid demolition case. It has acquitted the BJP leaders LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti and former Chief Minister Kalyan Singh along with 28 other accused. The Special CBI Court observed that the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition was done by anti-social elements and it was not pre-planned. The case relates to the razing of the disputed structure in Ayodhya on 6 December 1992, and the Supreme Court had fixed 30 September as the deadline for the trial court to pronounce its judgement in the case.

Peace and Conflict in the Middle East and North Africa
Lebanon: Prime minister-designate Mustapha Adib resigns 
On 26 September, Prime minister-designate of Lebanon, Mustapha Adib resigned amid his efforts to arrange a non-partisan cabinet, particularly over who would run the finance ministry came to a standstill. The formation of a new government was hit by an impasse when the demand of two dominant Shia parties Iran-backed Hezbollah and its ally, the Amal Movement demanded to name Shia ministers in the cabinet. The former ambassador to Germany who was designated as the new PM in August as a result of the last government stepped down in the aftermath of the Beirut port blast. Further, Adib's resignation comes a few days after President Michel Aoun told reporters that Lebanon would be going to "hell" if a new government was not formed soon. This breakdown will lead to the further collapse of the country's economic and financial situation.

Lebanon: President Emmanuel Macron accuses Lebanon's leaders of "collective betrayal"
On 27 September, the President of France, Emmanuel Macron accused Lebanon's leaders of "collective betrayal" for their failed efforts to form a government amid the massive explosion at the Beirut port in August. Macron further, criticized the Lebanese political elite for prioritizing their selfish interests over those of their country stating, "they have decided to betray this commitment [to form a government]," adding that he was "ashamed" of the country's leaders. Further, while continuing to promote his proposed roadmap said that without reform the country was "heading toward a crisis that would not only be a political crisis, but that would only lead to the risk of a civil war." 

Mali: Moctar Ouane named new prime minister by the transitional government
On 27 September, former Foreign Minister Moctar Ouane was appointed as the new prime minister of Mali by the country's interim government. Ouane, a veteran diplomat served as Mali's ambassador to the United Nations from 1995-2002, and as foreign minister from 2004-2009 during Amadou Toumani Toure's presidency. Further, his appointment opens the way for the possibility to lift sanction imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), after the August military coup who made the appointment of a civilian PM a precondition to lifting sanctions. 

Botswana: Mystery elephant deaths caused due to ingesting cyanobacteria
On 29 September, wildlife officials in Botswana stated that toxins made by microscopic algae in the water were cause for the mysterious deaths of hundreds of elephants in the country's Okavango Delta. Officials said that a total of 330 elephants are known to have died from ingesting cyanobacteria, which are toxic bacteria that grow naturally in standing water and sometimes grow into large blooms known as blue-green algae. Further, scientists warn that climate change may be making these incidents which are called known as toxic blooms to increase because they favour warm water. However, while some conservationists accepted the explanation, others did not consider the mystery solved and feared that the elephants could face danger again. 

Peace and Conflict in Europe and the Americas 
Canada and the UK impose sanctions on the Belarus President and others 
On 29 September, the United Kingdom and Canada have imposed travel bans, and asset freezes on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, his son and other senior officials over accusations their government rigged the election and committed violence against protesters. The sanctions, were the first to be implemented by major Western powers over the crisis in Belarus, a close Russian ally. More than 12,000 people have been arrested in mass demonstrations and several leaders exiled and abducted since Lukashenko, who has dominated the country for 26 years, was named the landslide winner in the 9 August Presidential election. 

Macron, now Merkel, set to meet Belarus opposition leader 
On 29 September, the French President Emmanuel Macron pushed for European mediation in the Belarus political crisis after a meeting with the country's opposition leader. During a visit to Lithuania, Macron met with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opponent of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. Tsikhanouskaya went into exile in that country after the 9 August presidential election. After Macron met with the leader, German chancellor Angela Merkel told in the Bundestag that she is planning to meet the Belarusian leader and push for mediation. The EU has earlier failed to decide on the sanctions after Cyprus vetoed the decision.

The US: California wildfires returns
In Northern California, the fire seasons are more than over. Firefighters are battling multiple fast-spreading wildfires including the heart of the state's wine country, as authorities say at least three civilians have been killed by the Zogg Fire in Shasta County. At a 29 September afternoon news conference, Daniel Berlant with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said that firefighters responded to 19 new wildfires throughout the state. The August Complex Fire continues to be the largest in the state and that "it grew significantly to 938,000 acres" that is almost 60,000 acres (more than 90 square miles) in a single day. Firefighters are struggling to contain the wind-driven blaze, he said. 


About the authors

Rashmi B R is a PhD scholar at NIAS; Lakshmi V Menon is a Research Consultant with NIAS; Dr Teshu Singh is a Research Fellow at Vivekananda International Foundation; Jason Wahlang is a PhD Scholar at Centre for Russia and Central Asian Studies with the Jawaharlal Nehru University; Abigail Miriam Fernandez and Sourina Bej are Research Associates at NIAS. 

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