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The World This Week
The US divide over Ukraine, and the US-Israel differences over the war in Gaza

  GP Team

The World This Week #252, Vol. 6, No.6
11 February 2024

Alka Bala and Rosemary Kurian


Aid to Ukraine: The divide within the US
Alka Bala

What happened?
On 07 February, in the US Congress, the Republicans shot down the initially proposed USD 118.3 billion bipartisan bill, which aimed at border security measures and foreign aid to US allies. They claimed the bill lacked harsh border security measures and forced Democrats to move ahead with a standalone aid package to Ukraine and Israel.

On 09 February, the US Senate passed the initial vote, 64-19, on advancing the new USD 95.3 billion foreign aid bill focusing on aid to Ukraine, security aid to Israel, Taiwan and Indo-Pacific partners, and humanitarian assistance to Gaza. Chuck Schumer, the Senate Majority leader praised the preliminary vote and Hakeem Jeffries, House Democratic leader called for bipartisan efforts “to support America’s national security priorities.” The meeting between President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on the same day, highlighted the need for Congress to approve the Ukraine aid bill where Biden remarked “The failure of the United States Congress in not supporting Ukraine is close to criminal neglect.” 

What is the background?
First, a brief background to the bill. A breakdown of the revised USD 95.3 billion foreign aid bill is as follows: USD 60 billion is allocated for Ukraine’s military aid and non-military assistance; USD 14.1 billion for Israel’s military aid; more than USD eight billion to US’s partners in Indo-Pacific including Taiwan to support their deterrence activities against China. Republicans' earlier demands for strong immigration measures were carried out through the initial proposal of Foreign aid that accompanied strict border security measures. However, it was killed by the Republicans. Later, Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell and 16 Republicans voted in favour of going ahead with a stripped-down version of the bill, that excludes the border security provisions. 

Second, the background on aid to Ukraine. Earlier in December 2023, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukrainian President had visited Washington to persuade US lawmakers with pleas for more funds for Ukraine’s war against the Russian invasion. Zelenskyy also requested that Congress end its political gridlock and authorize funds for Ukraine. Since 2022, Ukraine has been the top recipient of US foreign aid, as it has already received over USD 75 billion. Aid provided has been used for offensive and counter-offensive activities such as weapons development, training and intelligence of Ukrainian Soldiers against the Russian military. Earlier in 2023, the White House had also agreed to providing Abrams battle tanks, anti-aircraft missiles, cluster munitions, coastal defence ships, and advanced surveillance and radar systems. The immigration influx within the US had become the guiding factor for debate on further foreign aid to Ukraine as Republicans had demanded to first ensure the safety of American borders from the migrant influx before aiding foreign countries to secure theirs. 

Third, the divide within the congress. Trump’s call to reject the bill tied with foreign aid, and demand for a separate harsher bill on immigration intensified the existing partition division in the Congress. Former President Donald Trump commands a strong hold over the hard-right Republicans who have committed to delaying the legislation through procedural manoeuvring.  The amendment discussions on the bill come a few days before the two-week recess. Unless Congress arrives at a bipartisan decision before the recess, the aid bill will get sidelined as budget negotiations will take priority. Hence the determination of Republicans to slow down the bill holds the chance of killing the bill entirely. The Senate would take the next procedural vote on 11 February, however, it’s uncertain even if the bill passes on to the House of Representatives, whether it would call for a vote. Republican McConell’s efforts in negotiations with Democratic leader Schumer are faced with a line of opposition from hard-line Republicans, revealing the factional rivalry in an already divided Congress.

What does it mean?
First, shaping of US foreign policy objectives. Trump and Republicans are pushing towards an “America First” isolationist policy, whereas the Democrats and the White House reiterate their national security commitments to US allies. Whereas the White House views support for Ukraine as a crucial part of ensuring the security of the US and its allies. Democrats position wartime aid as advances against authoritarians who hinder freedom and democracy. A victory for Trump in the 2024 elections will further solidify this stance, of the US withdrawing foreign aid and military support to other nations.

Second, uncertainty for Ukraine. The effects of the lack of Western aid would prove costly for Ukraine as Kyiv depends on international loans and grants to finance half of its budget. The lack of clarity on US military support has left Ukraine’s military capabilities dwindling. 

Third, the increasing pressure on the EU. The EU on 01 February had approved a EUR 50 billion aid to Ukraine to be deployed until 2027. However, if the US fails to push forward with the proposed foreign aid bill for Ukraine, it would cast greater pressure on future aid support from EU countries. 

Four, the US-Mexico border security. The failure of approval of the border security measures in congress is an attempt by Republicans to highlight the weakness of the Biden administration in tackling the issue of immigrant influx. Treatment of the border crisis as a partisan issue has resulted in the delay of the security proposal to increase Border patrol hiring, enforcement of security measures and establishment of an expulsion authority to oversee matters of migration.


US and Israel: The growing divide over the War in Gaza
Rosemary Kurian

What happened?
On 05 February, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Middle East again to secure a ceasefire deal between Hamas and Israel. for a proposal was made for a 135-day pause to the conflict, Israeli military’s withdrawal from Gaza, return of Israeli hostages held by Hamas, and release of more than 1500 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.

A senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan, stated that they “submitted a realistic vision, a logical vision to be the basis of dialogue via mediators” about the role of Hamas in securing a deal. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stated that a “surrender to the ludicrous demands of Hamas won’t lead to the liberation of hostages, and it will only invite another massacre.” Blinken said: “It will be up to the Israelis to decide what they want to do”, adding, “all that we can do is to show what the possibilities are and compare it to the alternative. And the alternative right now looks like an endless cycle of violence and despair.” 

What is the background?
First, Blinken’s visits to the Middle East. The primary agenda was to secure a solution to the worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza, secure a deal for the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas, preventing a regional escalation of the conflict along Israel’s borders and in the Red Sea, and to ensure a ceasefire and a plan for post-war Palestine through an efficient Palestinian Authority. Most importantly, the visits showcase the trajectory of American support to the Israelis throughout the war, beginning with unhindered support for the Israeli cause of complete eradication of Hamas to calls for a Palestinian state and demands for a ceasefire. 

Second, the US’s objective in the Gaza conflict. American support for Israel has been showcased historically through aid in the form of finance and military support. The US’s interests lie in balancing a diplomatic position as a supporter of Israel and condemning its attacks in Gaza. Blinken’s repeated visits to the region are are aimed at convincing Israel  for ceasefire immediately, and in the long term to work towards a a Palestinian state to prevent a regional expansion of the conflict or any conflict that could arise with Iran.

Third, differences with Netanyahu. Blinken’s visits have consistently attempted to restart a lasting peace process in the region. In a pre-emptive press conference, Netanyahu called the plan “delusional”, rejecting it altogether, prompting a later press conference from Blinken that showcased stark differences in their approaches. Blinken expressed that only Israel could determine the future of the peace process, one that the US was hopeful about. While Blinken tried to negotiate a deal with the US’s Arab allies, Joe Biden, the American President delivered one of his staunchest criticisms of Israel, calling Netanyahu’s military response in Gaza “over the top”. The US’s criticism can also be witnessed through increasing condemnation against Israeli settler violence.

Fourth, the divide within the US. The US’s unhindered support to Israel in the beginning of the war had garnered considerable domestic criticism against the Biden administration. Blinken’s speech to the Senate on 31 October 2023 was met with interruptions from activists, followed by interruptions in Biden’s election rally in Minneapolis the following day. Democrats were divided as, for the first time, a Gallup Institute poll in March 2023 showcased a 49 per cent affinity to Palestine over Israel (38 per cent). Ahead of the US elections, the worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza is a key issue for the Biden administration, especially with waning support from the progressive wing consisting of young voters and minorities of colour, a key demographic. 

What does it mean?
First, a frustrated US. Blinken’s repeated visits to the region and continued involvement in securing a deal acceptable to both parties is proof that the US is losing its patience. While US involvement had led to considerable impact through increased aid flowing into Gaza, for instance, the progression isn’t quick enough for the US. With the acceleration in the US presidential election campaign, the Biden administration’s ability to invest in brokering unstable peace deals between the conflicting parties in the Middle East would dwindle. Biden would want to minimise any risk of an American fallout after negotiating a peace deal, especially given his increasing differences with the Israeli administration. The US can no longer wait for results, and Israel seems to be delaying an end much to their dismay.

Second, Netanyahu’s delicate position. The US is continuously attempting to convince Netanyahu to re-engage with Palestine and support their independence after the war ends. He is in a vulnerable position at home due to the several corruption charges against him, leading him to appease several far-right leaders in his coalition who are staunch opponents of the Palestinian cause, a potential reason for his resistance to US proposals at peace. Israel has accommodated some US demands, but exhibited hostility towards others, like refusing to turn over taxes collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. While the US has remained a constant supporter, they too exhibit signs of waning confidence in the region.


TWTW Regional Roundups
News from around the World 

Akriti Sharma, Rohini Reenum, Padmashree Anandhan, Anu Maria Joseph, Femy Francis, Dhriti Mukherjee, Shamini Velayutham, Akhil Ajith, Vetriselvi Baskaran, Sanjay Manivannan, Navinan Govindaraj, and Narmatha S, Alka Bala, Nuha Aamina and Gopi Keshav

China This Week
China: Feminist activist detained for three years and eight months
On 08 February, Voice of America reported on the sentencing of Chinese feminist activist Li Qiaochu for three years and eight months by the Shandong court of China. The charges were “incitement to subvert state power,” claiming she was deeply influenced by her boyfriend Xu Zhiyong who was sentenced to 14 years in jail on similar charges. The charges showed the current situation in China where individuals closely affiliated with the activists and detainees would find themselves in trouble for speaking out of concern. “Her case shows that speaking up for other human rights defenders in China has now become a red line in the Chinese government’s eyes,” said visiting researcher at the University of Tokyo, Patrick Poon. Li has been a long-time feminist and labour rights activist who has remained in detention since 2021. The families and friends of such activists have been threatened and are refrained from meeting their lawyers. The only chance for these activists remains is the pressure from the international community. The Chinese embassy in Washington kept their silence and refrained from responding to these concerns.

China: Russia rejects the US intervention in other countries
On 08 February, during a phone call, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping denounced the US policy of interference in the internal affairs of other countries. Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov mentioned that the two leaders spoke about creating a “multipolar, fairer world order” amid the US’s containment policy against Russia and China. The growing Russia-China ties have increased anxiety among the Western countries. While Russia benefits from China in the form of an economic lifeline, Beijing gets access to cheap energy imports from Russia. He further said that both leaders discussed the Ukraine situation and the conflict resolution in the Middle East.

China: Population to fall by 20 million in 2035, says EIU
On 07 February, the South China Morning Post reported on The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) findings, it is expected that the Chinese population will dip by 20 million to 1.39 billion by 2035, leading to dampening of long-term economic prospects and creating implications for delayed retirement and accelerated automation rate. The report stated the declining population is due to fewer women of childbearing age, delays in people getting married, and the declining trend of having children. Another reason is the higher economic costs resulting in fewer children. The report also estimates that the government will postpone the retirement ages. China’s retirement ages are among the lowest in the world, with 60 for men, 55 for female office workers, and 50 for female blue-collar workers. The report also predicted that the future population reallocation will mainly be driven more by migration between urban areas rather than from rural to urban areas, thereby reducing the slowdown in the urbanisation rate.

China: Mexico overtakes as the largest exporter to the US
On 07 February, Mexico overtook China as the leading source of exported goods to the US amid the growing trade tensions between the US and China. The data from the U.S. The Commerce Department shows that the value of goods imported by the United States from Mexico rose nearly 5 per cent from 2022 to 2023, to more than USD 475 billion. At the same time, the value of Chinese imports tumbled 20 per cent to USD 427 billion. While former President Trump imposed tariffs on Chinese goods in 2018, President Joe Biden continues to retain those tariffs against China as Beijing’s actions violated global trade rules. As the US calls for offshoring production to China, Mexico became the beneficiary of the growing trade tensions with China. Chinese manufacturers have exploited the US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement to leverage the US market.

China: Welcomes Taiwanese business delegation
On 07 February, Nikkei Asia reported that Song Tao, head of the Taiwan Affairs Office under the mainland Chinese government's State Council, met with a delegation from the Taiwan Electrical and Electronic Manufacturers' Association (TEEMA) in Beijing. TEEMA members include companies in the semiconductor, electronics and telecommunications hardware sectors, all critical components of Taiwan's economy. According to the Taiwan Affairs Office, the mainland will provide a "broader stage" for Taiwanese businesspeople and enterprises to put down roots and expand. TEEMA Chairman Lee Tsu-chin said the Taiwanese business community "supports the peaceful and integrated development of cross-strait relations”. China has been vocal about its sovereignty claims on Taiwan and is alarmed by the growing closeness between the Taiwanese administration’s President Lai and the US.

China: To have positive and friendly bilateral ties with South Korea
On 06 February, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said in a phone call to his South Korean counterpart to pursue a "positive, objective and friendly" policy towards Beijing. He said that both countries must work together for stability and smooth flow of supply chains. South Korean foreign minister Cho Tae-yul asked China to play a "constructive role" in curbing North Korea's military threats and to help North Korean defectors not to be sent back home against their will. Wang has extended the invite for Cho to visit China for a bilateral meeting. Both sides discussed the situation on the Korean Peninsula.

China: Signs MoU with Afghanistan on oil production
On 06 February, according to an editorial in VOA titled “Afghan Oil Production Jumps With $49 Million Chinese Investment,” by Akmal Dawi, China’s Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Co, or CAPEIC, signed an agreement for oil extraction with Taliban authorities in Afghanistan. CAPEIC is required to invest USD 150 million by the first year and extend it to USD 540 million by 2026. However, the funding has been around USD 49 million, which is one-third of the funding promised by China, due to the inaccurate estimates of material and labour costs and a three-month delay in the approval of its financial plan by Afghan authorities. So far, the investment has helped to boost the country’s oil output to more than 1,100 metric tons. Experts say that China’s primary motivation is not economic but to curb the potential security threats from foreign terrorist groups threatening its porous borders.

East Asia and the Pacific This Week
Australia: Meta’s oversight board to examine the indigenous vote case
On 09 February, Meta’s oversight board said it would examine two cases on how the social media giant handled potentially misleading posts shared before the Australian referendum on Indigenous recognition in October 2023. In October 2023, Australians decisively rejected a proposal to recognize Aboriginal constitutionally and Torres Strait Island people. The vote was held amid a profoundly divisive debate in the country and amid fears that a misinformation campaign was influencing voters. The board said these cases fall within its strategic priority of Elections and Civic Space and can issue policy recommendations to Meta, which are non-binding.
 
Papua New Guinea: Prime Minister makes a historical address in Australian parliament
On 08 February, Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea (PNG) James Marape made a historic address to a joint sitting of Australia’s Parliament. Marape pledged that “nothing will come in between our two countries”. It is the first time a Pacific Island leader addresses the Australian parliament, as Canberra has been trying to improve ties with Pacific nations amid fears of China’s growing reach in the region. Through his statement, he did not specify any country but wanted to reassure Australia and the US that the country was not going to sign any new security initiatives. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told Parliament that the security pact with PNG marks “the beginning of a new era of cooperation”, and addressing Marape, said Australia wants to be “your primary partner”.

North Korea: Seoul’s complaint on Residents’ housing, medical and educational environments 
On 06 February, The Straits Times reported on the conditions of North Korea in Pyongyang. The defectors now living in South Korea informed that they never received any government rations from the state and they survived on the informal market.  The report was published by the Seoul Unification Ministry, which included a 280-page report on the dire condition and the social situation of the citizens of North Korea. The report interviewed 6,300 defectors between 2022-2023. North Korea is facing a dire food shortage and the situation is exacerbated by the continued sanctions imposed and the dip in border trade during Covid-19. The report also said that there is a growing influence and information about the outside world, where most defectors have watched foreign content and videos.

Japan: Proposals to expand offshore wind farms to its EEZ
On 06 February, Nikkei Asia reported on Japan’s plans to allow the development of offshore wind farms that are stationed beyond its territorial waters and are part of their larger exclusive economic zone. The approval process of this proposal is said to be lengthy as companies would require consent from the local actors and fisherman and fisheries operations. The proposal approved would provide Japan with 10 times more of the area for wind projects. The Japan Wind Power Association reckons that the wind capacity will rise to 3.5 times if the expansion is allowed. The measure is also proposed on the green ging strategy of Japan aiming to decarbonize. 

South Korea: Booyoung gives USD 101 thousand per childbirth
On 05 February, The Straits Times reported on the recent childbirth incentive of USD 101,000 proposed by a South Korean company Booyoung Group. The effort came as part of the growing low birth rate and believes that the economic support would incentivise young couples. In the year 2021, it reportedly paid seven billion won for 70 childbirths in the company. The company’s spokesperson Lee said: “The low birth rate results from financial burdens and difficulties in balancing work and family life, so we decided to take such a drastic measure.” 

Southeast Asia This Week
Indonesia: Prabowo leads opinion polls
On 09 February, according to a survey conducted by Indikator Politik Indonesia between 28 January and 04 February around 1,200 people were asked about their preferred presidential candidate. The results showed that 51.8 per cent of respondents favoured Prabowo Subianto. Meanwhile, 24.1 per cent and 19.6 per cent said they would vote for Anies Baswedan and Ganjar Pranowo, respectively. Prabowo is running for presidential candidacy for the third time after losing to Joko Widodo in both 2014 and 2019. In the backdrop, Widodo has been criticised for his implicit support to Prabowo, which his allies have denied.

Malaysia: Apex court revokes state amendment
On 09 February, the Malaysian Federal Court ruled that the Kelantan state does not have the authority to expand its sharia law to criminal acts, as the constitution grants this jurisdiction to federal powers. However, some critics are concerned that this ruling could weaken Sharia law in the country. In 2021, Kelantan’s state assembly amended the state's sharia law to include criminal acts under its jurisdiction. The chief justice Tengku Maimun, announced that only two of the eighteen provisions could be enforced under Kelantan's sharia law. The remaining provisions were deemed ‘invalid’ by a majority decision of eight to one in court. Deputy chief minister of Kelantan Mohamed Fadzil Hassan, expressed his disappointment with the ruling and stated that the government must amend the constitution to grant greater power to the Sharia courts.

Thailand: Plan to initiate dialogue in Myanmar
On 06 February, Reuters reported on the humanitarian aid initiative led by Thailand for dialogue among camps in junta-dominated Myanmar. According to Thailand's vice Foreign Minister Sihasak Phuangketkeow, Thailand aims to create a humanitarian safe zone near the Mae Sot-Myawaddy crossing, at its border with Myanmar to ensure delivery of food and medical supplies to the displaced and local communities. This initiative has been supported by ASEAN foreign ministers and a Myanmar representative, who will ensure that Thai and Myanmar will ensure the delivery of supplies. Thailand believes that this plan could lead to talks between the junta, ethnic armed groups and the shadow government, the National Unity Government, and considers this as an “opportunity for constructive dialogue to begin.”

South Asia This Week
Pakistan: PTI-backed independents gain ground 
On 9 February, The Express Tribune reported that the preliminary results of the 2024 general elections in Pakistan revealed an unexpected trend: independent candidates supported by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) made significant gains despite challenges and a perceived lack of a fair playing field. As Imran Khan remains incarcerated, supporters celebrated their “victory” on 9 February as results indicated PTI-backed candidates leading in numerous constituencies. However, delays in result announcements and concerns over potential tampering raised tensions. This was in particular with regard to the internet suspension, which many have regarded as going against the democratic nature of elections. The PTI leadership voiced confidence in victory but warned against interference in the electoral process. Amidst criticism and frustrations, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) faced pressure to expedite result disclosures to uphold legal obligations.

India: Kaladan project at stake in Myanmar
On 09 February, The Hindu reported that Myanmar’s rebel Arakan Army (AA) captured the Paletwa township near the Mizoram border in January which is now causing troubles for the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project (KMTTP). Myanmar's opposition described it as “almost died," adding, “There is no way that any connectivity project can take place in Rakhine State right now as the AA has established control in almost all the major towns and supply routes. As a result, the Kaladan project too has almost died as Paletwa is essential for this project and Paletwa is no longer in control of the military junta." It is one of the most crucial connectivity projects that aims at connecting the port of Kolkata to the port of Sittwe in Rakhine or Arakan State which will lead to Mizoram by roadways and then to the Paletwa which flows by Kaladan River. 

Maldives: President’s claims on "pro-Maldives"
On 09 January, Sun Siyam Media reported that President Mohamed Muizzu wants to move away from the labels of "pro-India" or "pro-China" and instead focus on a "pro-Maldives" foreign policy. During the victory rally in Male, he criticized the media giants for referring to him as "Pro-China" when he won the elections. This comes after the previous administrations leaned towards either India or China, raising concerns about foreign interference. Muizzu promised to maintain friendly relations with all countries while respecting Maldives' autonomy and independence. Recent administrations tilted towards either India or China, leading to critiques of over-reliance on a single country. Muizzu's "pro-Maldives" approach aims to restore balance and prioritize the nation's interests in its international relations.

Nepal: Key Chinese projects in delay and face criticism
On 09 February, The Kathmandu Post reported that China has recently communicated its intent to expedite at least six projects across multiple sectors in Nepal, amid criticism that Chinese-funded projects have not made desired progress in Nepal and Beijing has failed to adhere to past agreements and accords. Projects such as Narayanghat-Butwal road upgrade, Kathmandu Tarai fast track, Kanchanpur-Kamala road expansion, Syafrubesi-Rasuwagadhi road building, second phase of widening of Kathmandu Ring Road, Tokha-Chhahare tunnel construction, widening of the Muglin-Kathmandu road section, and the Rasuwagadhi-Kerung cross-border transmission line have either shown dismal progress or are yet to take off. Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Chen Song conveyed that at least six projects it previously committed to would be expedited, and groundwork will begin after the conclusion of the Chinese New Year holidays. The Chinese ambassador also conveyed to Prime Minister Dahal that a Chinese technical team will arrive soon to conduct the feasibility study of the Hilsa-Simikot road, whose passage-opening work is almost complete, and a new bridge will be built with Chinese assistance. The planned 220 kV cross-border transmission line, which will connect Kerung of China with Nepal’s Rasuwagadhi, has been in talks since 2016. During the meeting, Dahal had expressed concerns over the expansion and widening of the Narayanghat-Butwal and Muglin-Kathmandu road sections, both of which are being undertaken by Chinese contractors. Ambassador Chen on the other hand claimed notable recent progress in both projects.

Nepal: Trade agreement with Australia 
On 09 February, according to The Kathmandu Post, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs signed a trade and investment framework arrangement with Australia. The agreement was signed by Ambassador of Nepal to Australia Kailash Raj Pokharel, and Australian Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs Tim Watts, in Perth, Australia. The signing ceremony was witnessed by Foreign Minister NP Saud, who is on an Australian visit, and his Australian counterpart Penny Wong. The Ministers also held a bilateral meeting to exchange views on mutual interests. The signing of the agreement is expected to strengthen the economic relationship between the two countries. Australian Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs Watts said, “Australia and Nepal are close friends, and our relationship is underpinned by deep people-to-people links- Nepali Australians are our fastest-growing migrant community.” The foreign minister is also scheduled to participate in the 7th Indian Ocean Conference and hold meetings with participating heads of delegations from different countries on the sidelines of the conference.

Bangladesh: Deteriorating air quality in Dhaka
On 09 February, The Daily Star reported that Dhaka ranked sixth on the list of cities worldwide with the worst air quality, with an AQI score of 179. The city's air was classified as “unhealthy”, according to the air quality index. When the AQI value for particle pollution is between 101 and 150, air quality is considered "unhealthy for sensitive groups", between 150 and 200 is "unhealthy", and between 201 and 300 is said to be "very unhealthy". A reading of 301+ is considered "hazardous", posing serious health risks to residents. The impact of air pollution on health, with a focus on the estimated seven million annual deaths worldwide due to air pollution-related causes.

Bhutan: Hike in kerosene prices
On 09 February, the Kuensel reported that people had been suffering as the price of Kerosene increased. Most of the households in Bhutan rely on Kerosene, especially in winter to heat houses. Last month Kerosene cost more than petrol with Nu 73.02. However, it dropped by Nu 1.52 in February. People reported that there were losses in the business, and some were unable to afford and adapt to the harsh climate. Reports said that prices have increased from Nu 40 per litre in 2020 to Nu 54 in 2021, reaching close to Nu 100 in 2022, and fluctuating between Nu 70-80 in 2023.  The BOD employees point out that the cost fluctuations for oil in India are the cause of price hikes in Bhutan.

Bhutan: Funds for development projects
On 09 February, according to Kuensel, the Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation (BTFEC) said that it would fund USD 2 million for development projects. Earlier the trust funded USD 12 million for ongoing 15 projects for development and welfare. BTFEC is a private organisation that accepts proposals from the government as well as private agencies that support activities for environmental conservation. The Managing Director of the BTFEC said: “Last year we received over 90 proposals and we encouraged more projects to be proposed that benefit the society and nature conservation for annual grants,” The BTFEC, one of the oldest organisations in Bhutan has funded 241 environmental projects since 1991. It has attracted various donors across the world like the World Wildlife Fund, Global Environment Facility, Green Climate Fund, and the governments of Bhutan, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland.

Sri Lanka: India to supply LNG by 2025
On 08 February, the CEO of Petronet LNG Ltd. said it would start to supply LNG to Sri Lanka by 2025. The company is said to send 850 tonnes of gas daily in containers for five years. Petronet plans to construct a Floating Storage Regasification Unit (FSRU) in Colombo for the shipment of gas. It hopes to get approval for the FSRU from the Sri Lankan government by 2025 and expects the facility will be built by 2028. 

India: Suspension of Free Movement Regime with Myanmar
On 08 February, Union Home Minister Amit Shah stated that the government has decided to end the Free Movement Regime (FMR) with Myanmar by fencing to ensure internal security. According to the FMR, any member of a hill tribe who is a citizen of either India or Myanmar and lives within 16 kilometres of the border on either side can cross by a border pass. Both countries have an unfenced 1,643-kilometer border as people have familial and ethnic ties. In its 2011-12 annual report, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) remarked that the FMR renders the international border particularly porous, and the rugged and unforgiving terrain provides cover for the actions of numerous Indian insurgent groups (IIGs). 

Bangladesh: Foreign Minister’s visit to India
On 08 February, Bangladesh's Foreign Minister, Hasan Mahmud met with the External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval during his first visit to India. Both sides reviewed the progress in wide-ranging areas of bilateral relations, including cross-border connectivity, economic and development partnership, cooperation in defence and security, power, energy, water resources, and people-to-people exchanges. They also discussed areas of future engagement in line with the national development goals of the two countries, including the visions of “Viksit Bharat 2047” and “Smart Bangladesh 2041”. Both countries exchanged views on regional and multilateral issues of common interest and expressed commitment to further enhance their collaboration to promote sub-regional cooperation within the framework of the BIMSTEC, IORA, and BBIN initiatives. Both sides also discussed the escalating situation in Myanmar along the Bangladesh border with Doval. The visit contributed to further strengthening the traditional, long-standing friendship and cooperation between the two countries.

Nepal: Largest troop contributor to the UN peacekeeping missions
On 08 February, the United Nations Peacekeeping mission declared that Nepal has beaten Bangladesh in contributing troops from South Asia to the UN peacekeeping mission in terms of both military and police. As of 30 November 2023, Nepal has sent almost 6,247 military personnel to serve in the various conflict zones. Out of 6,247 troops deployed, the number of male troops is 5,645 and the remaining 602 are female. Additionally, the Nepal Army stands at the top when compared to the country's Armed police and police force. Bangladesh holds the second top position in contribution. 

India: The state of Uttarakhand passes the Uniform Civil Code 
On 08 February, the Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Uniform Civil Code, making it the first legislature in India to impose common rules for all communities on marriage, divorce, inheritances, and live-in relationships, except for Scheduled Tribes. The bill was passed despite the Opposition's demand to refer the Bill to the House’s select committee first. The demand for a Uniform Civil Code has been a longstanding issue in India, with arguments for its need to ensure gender equality and national integration, and against it as an attack on the right to freedom of religion and customary laws. The passage of the code in Uttarakhand is a significant development in the ongoing debate about the implementation of a Uniform Civil Code in India.

Sri Lanka: Opposition parties scramble for India's attention
On 08 February, the Sri Lankan party NPP is currently on a five-day visit to India, meeting with top officials like the External Affairs Minister and National Security Advisor. This has prompted the main opposition party SJB to request a similar visit, sensing a political opportunity ahead of the presidential election. India has reportedly responded favorably to their request. This highlights the growing rivalry between the two parties as they jockey for position in the upcoming election.

Bangladesh: Decline in the textile sector
On 08 February, The Daily Star reported that the home textile sector of Bangladesh, which had shown significant growth in exports, is now facing a decline due to various challenges. The lingering gas crisis, volatile exchange rates, and higher production costs have led to many factories going out of business. The decline in exports has also led to a reduction in the number of active home textile mills, with only eight mills currently operational, down from 38 a few years ago. The sector is also facing increased competition from countries like Pakistan, which has benefited from a weakened currency, making its exports more competitive. The challenges have led to a significant decrease in profit margins for home textile millers, forcing many to stop taking new orders and reduce production capacity. The industry is also being affected by global events, such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the Gaza-Israel conflict, which have further impacted exports. The future of the sector remains uncertain, with warnings that more textile mills might close if the gas situation does not improve.

Sri Lanka: Highest electricity charges in South Asia
On 08 February, The Daily Mirror released an analysis report conducted by Verité Research on electricity costs among South Asian countries. The report said as compared with other South Asian countries, Sri Lankan households pay high electricity charges. This is seen as a major gap between Sri Lanka and other regional countries and a serious burden on the country. The research examined the tariff and cost structure in February, July, and October of 2023. The households pay around three times higher compared with other countries which is seen as a stark figure. Consuming 100 units in Sri Lanka costs LKR 5,280, while the average in South Asian countries stands at LKR 2,078. A marginal decrease in the tariff is expected in February 2024 which would reduce to 4 per cent from the present charges.

Sri Lanka: Online Safety Act amendments 
On 06 February, the proposed amendments to Sri Lanka's Online Safety Act fell short from a technological perspective. Experts say they lack implementable details and violate international human rights covenants. Obtaining evidence for prosecutions may require international cooperation with tech companies, demanding a more collaborative approach. In the backdrop of mounting criticism, an official of the Public Security Ministry mentioned: “We will proceed with the incorporation of the new amendments after Cabinet approval.” Rushing through amendments without proper consultation risks eroding trust in digital platforms and hindering the country's digital economy goals. Additionally, the Act's broad powers clash with the Data Protection Act, raising further concerns.

Pakistan: TikTok takes steps to combat misinformation ahead of elections
On 05 February, TikTok stated that it would help combat misinformation and uphold election integrity on its platform in order to ensure a safe environment for information. TikTok in a statement said: “Building on its robust global framework to combat misinformation, TikTok is collaborating with internationally recognised fact-checking organisation Agence France-Presse (AFP) as its fact-checker to specifically address the Pakistani electoral context.” It would also work with Pakistani local community partner organisations to “identify potential misinformation and take action on it.” The app launched the Pakistan Election Center, a hub to provide authoritative information regarding the elections in English and Urdu. Aside from this, education content and in-app guides would be used to raise awareness, while customers would benefit from a user-centric approach through tools that would allow them to report misleading content.

Pakistan: IMF delays endorsement of Pakistan’s economic proposals
On 05 February, the IMF withheld immediate endorsement of Pakistan’s interim government’s proposals to reduce industrial electricity prices, settle circular debt, and include Pakistan International Airlines’ (PIA) debt in public debt. The IMF sought more details on the proposals’ economic and political viability and questioned the government’s haste, especially with regard to PIA’s debt settlement plan. Additionally, the IMF scrutinised plans to reduce industrial tariffs and the circular debt reduction strategy. Two meets with Pakistani authorities concluded without firm decisions, and the IMF indicated that further consideration would be given post-elections. The interim government wants to implement these proposals before exiting office, but the IMF raised concerns about shifting burdens.

Maldives: President to boost defence after India withdraws troops
On 05 February, the President of Maldives, Mohamed Muizzu, during his first parliamentary address said that small but strategically placed Maldives will strengthen its military to defend its maritime territory. He told the Parliament that Indian troops will leave by March 10 and the process will be completed within two months. He added that the Maldivian Defence Forces will be able to conduct surveillance of the 9,00,000 square kilometer Exclusive Economic Zone. On 09 February, Sun Siyam Media highlighted that the Indian government announced that it would replace its military personnel in the Maldives with "competent technical personnel." Currently, there are 88 Indian military personnel in the Maldives, providing support for military equipment given by India. 

Central Asia This Week
Turkmenistan: New minister of education has been appointed by president
On 10 February, President Serdar Berdimuhamedov relieved Bayramgul Motyevna Orazdurdyeva of her position as rector of the Magtymguly Turkmen State University and nominated her as Turkmenistan's new minister of education. The “Neutral Turkmenistan” Decree was signed by the head of state following a lengthy government meeting.

Armenia: New domestic violence prevention measure wins first reading in parliament 
On 07 February, the Civil Contract faction of MPs wrote a measure that the Armenian parliament supported by a vote of 63-32-1 on its first reading in order to stop domestic abuse.
Using a number of objections to the legislation's wording, opposition MPs voted it down. The bill’s author, MP Zaruhi Batoyan, explained to legislators that the goals of her legislation are to avoid domestic violence and to improve the efficacy of victim protection. According to the bill, virginity testing is considered a form of violence. Among other things, the bill will set free healthcare for victims, specify timelines for protection, and safeguard children. The legislation's use of the word “partner” infuriated opposition MP Armine Kyureghyan of the Hayastan faction. According to Batoyan, this matter is currently being discussed. The authors clarified that if the victim is not married to the alleged abuser, authorities are not authorized to enforce the domestic violence protection law under existing legislation.

Kyrgyzstan: 90 per cent border agreement with Tajikistan
On 06 February, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have reached a consensus on the demarcation of 90 per cent of their formerly disputed territory, marking a significant step towards a final settlement that will put an end to decades of bitter disagreements. According to an official statement, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon endorsed “political dialogue and the strengthening of an atmosphere of trust between the two countries on the basis of a centuries-old bond of friendship and on the principles of good neighbourliness.” According to a press statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kyrgyzstan, its foreign policy philosophy prioritizes bilateral relations with Tajikistan. 

Middle East  and Africa This Week
Qatar: Emir meets Spain’s foreign minister
On 07 February, the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and the Foreign Minister of Spain, Jose Manuel Albares, met to talk about bilateral relations. Spain’s foreign minister stated in a post on X that he had reaffirmed Spain's strong commitment to “peace and stability in the region” during the meeting in Doha. In addition, he said, this would entail the release of prisoners, an end to hostilities, and a two-state resolution to the Israel-Palestine dispute that would see Israel and Palestine coexist peacefully.

Israel: Argentina’s President Javier Milei’s strong support 
On 06 February, the hard-right president of Argentina, Javier Milei, met Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem with Israeli President Isaac Herzog. He had promised to foster tighter ties and had voiced his strong support for Israel. Milei declared last month that the journey would usher in “a new chapter in the brotherhood between our two nations.” Upon his visit, he revealed that his country will be moving its embassy to Jerusalem. Netanyahu expressed his approval of the highly anticipated decision, saying in an office statement that he “warmly welcomes” the move.

Israel: US senators disclose financing bill of worth USD 14.1 billion
on 05 February, US senators unveiled an emergency financing bill that contains USD14.1 billion in military aid to Israel, out of a total of USD 118.3 billion for foreign aid and national security. The USD 4 billion for Israel’s Iron Dome and David’s Sling defense systems to stave off short-range rocket threats is part of the bill, which still needs to pass the Republican-controlled Senate. The Iron Beam defense system, designed to thwart short-range missile attacks, will cost USD 1.2 billion. Furthermore, Israel will receive USD 3.5 billion in international military aid to help it restore its deterrence and territorial security.

Palestine: President meets France’s foreign minister
On 05 February, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas, issued a warning against the expulsion of Palestinians from any of the occupied territories during a meeting with the Foreign Minister of France Stephane Sejourne. Abbas also urged France in a statement to acknowledge Palestine as a state and back its full admittance to the UN, “considering it is the right way to carry out a political solution” to the conflict. Sejourne said: “We perfectly understand these concerns, and on this point, France’s position remains the same: we condemn and will reject any action taken in this direction.”

Qatar: EAA meeting along with UNICEF
On 04 February, Education Above All (EAA), organized a discussion in New York with several Qatari organizations and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on how to give millions of out-of-school children similar learning opportunities. Along with other parties, the Qatar Fund for Development, the Qatari Mission to the UN, and EAA were present at the meeting. In a statement, the EAA stated: “The primary objective of this critical dialogue was to reinforce the strong collaboration between the State of Qatar and UNICEF, charting a roadmap for the next phase of their partnership.” Furthermore, the two organizations announced their intentions to increase their cooperation in order to better serve the 244 million children and young people who lack access to high-quality education.

Madagascar: Calls to abolish castration law
On 07 February, BBC reported on the calls for immediate action to abolish castration law laid forward by Amnesty International. The castration law was enforced in January by President Andry Rajoelina. It will impose rape criminals with chemical and surgical castration. The Human Rights group, Amnesty International, called for cancelling the law describing it as "cruel, inhuman and degrading.” Tigere Chagutah, Amnesty's regional director for east and southern Africa, stated: "Implementing chemical and surgical castration, which constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, as a punishment for those found guilty of raping minors will not solve this and is inconsistent with Malagasy constitutional provisions against torture and other ill-treatment, as well as regional and international human rights standard.” 

Zimbabwe: Cabinet supports death penalty abolition
On 07 February, Zimbabwe’s cabinet expressed its support for the proposed legislation on the abolition of the death penalty, a dire decision to abolish such punishment in the Southern African country. Information Minister, Jenfan Muswere, informed that the decision was taken after consulting the public. 

Ethiopia: President assures no ill intentions on Somalia
On 06 February, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed commented that Ethiopia "does not wish any harm" for Somalia. This comes on the sideline of Ethiopia-Somalia tensions over a port deal signed between Ethiopia and Somaliland. Somalia sees the deal, which grants Ethiopia access to the sea, as an act of aggression and a violation of its sovereignty. Somalia has called its youth to prepare for defence and Ethiopia has blamed unnamed forces for inciting conflict. 

South Africa: African leaders discuss bolstering mining industry
On 05 February, BBC reported that leaders, experts and investors from several African countries gathered for the annual conference to bolster the mining sector in Africa. It is a four-day event, hosted by South Africa. Discussions on critical minerals including lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and graphite which are the main components for renewable energy generation were focused. South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, mentioned Africa's potential in global energy transition, having mining as great support to it. He stated: “South Africa is pursuing a just energy transition – one that is at a pace and scale that our country can afford, and in a manner that ensures energy security and creates new opportunities for those affected.” 

Europe and Americas This Week
Europe: Michel highlights increased investments in economy and defence at EIB Forum
On 07 February, at the European Investment Bank (EIB) Group Forum, President of the European Council, Charles Michel, emphasised the importance of improving the European economic base through investment, innovation and technology and focus on security and defence. He highlighted the significance of the EU single market. The importance of data sharing between nations was also considered as vital as it will lead to the provision of better care. Most importantly, Michel highlighted the joint orders and cooperation in military arms production. While mentioning the eight per cent increase in defence budgets of the European allies, he called for an investment of EUR 600 billion in the next ten years. He also outlined the necessity for greater job creation and making the economies innovative and competitive.

Europe: Commission proposes two targets to set the climate goals right
On 06 February, the European Commission proposed two recommendations to meet the EU climate goals. One, it vouched for a 90 per cent cut in the greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. This target is set to help the EU on track to achieve the net zero emission by 2050. In 2022, the emission was reduced by 33 per cent and the commission stressed on more focus for citizens to enjoy the benefit from climate transition. Two, it proposed a document with plans to “capture and store” millions of tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emission by 2050. The proposal comes a juncture where the EU witness mass farmer protests and a tight climate target to meet. Key reasons behind the proposal are to target climate neutrality and increased CO2 reductions. 

Europe: Ursula relaxes the chemical pesticide use
On 06 February, European Commission President, Ursula Von Der Leyen, proposed withdrawal of a plan to cut the pesticide use in agriculture as a negotiation against the farmer protests. She indicated that the earlier announced green transition as “symbol of polarization,” and the initial target to half down the chemical pesticide use in the EU had paused in the discussions in the European Parliament. On the farmers, she added: “Many of them feel pushed into a corner…our farmers deserve to be listened to,” but she also insisted on turning the European agriculture into a sustainable form of production. The pesticide problem is only one out of the grievances stated the farmers on protest across Europe where the larger environmental regulation remains debated.

Hungary: Hungary's vote to Sweden's accession prolongs
On 06 February, in the session held by Hungary’s opposition to vote for Sweden’s accession only 51 MPs participated out of 199 prolonging the decision. While one of the MPs from the left liberal opposition party criticised Hungary’s Prime Minister, Victor Orban for the delay, the conservative Jobbik party and far-right Mi Hazánk party found the vote against its interest. Following this David Pressman who was the attendees in the parliament said: “Sweden's accession to NATO is an issue that directly affects the national security of the United States and also the security of the entire alliance.”

Ireland: Nationalist leader Michelle O’Neill appointed as the First Minister
On 03 February, Deutsche Welle reported on the appointment of the First Minister, Michelle O’Neill becoming the first nationalist leader. She will share power with the deputy First Minister, of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Emma Little-Pengelly. Despite O'Neill being the first minister-designate since May 2022, the DUP’s boycott of the assembly delayed the appointment and its concerns over the checks and trading rules for Northern Ireland introduced post-Brexit. DUP’s deal with the UK government agreed in the previous week on eased customs checks and other legal changes had assured the unionists. 

Argentina: President announces plans to move embassy to Jerusalem
On 06 February, Argentina’s President Javier Milei confirmed his intention to relocate the country’s embassy to West Jerusalem during his inaugural official visit to Israel. Milei said that his plan is “to move the embassy to west Jerusalem.” This decision aligns with the promise he made to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu post-election. Netanyahu’s office stated that Netanyahu “welcomes the fact that the president has kept his promise.” Hamas said it “strongly condemns” this announcement, as it considered the move as a “violation of the rules of international law, considering Jerusalem as occupied Palestinian land.”
 
El Salvador: President Nayib Bukele secures landslide re-election
On 05 February, El Salvador’s President, Nayib Bukele, clinched a resounding victory in the country’s presidential election, with preliminary results indicating he secured a second term by winning 83 per cent of the votes. Bukele has been credited with significantly reducing gang violence in the nation. He declared victory before the official announcement, boasting to have achieved “the biggest difference between first place and second place in history.” Bukele, who has described himself as the “world’s coolest dictator,” went on to claim that the “opposition has been pulverised.” His administration’s crackdown on crime has transformed El Salvador from one of the world’s most violent countries to one of the safest in Latin America. Despite criticism and controversy surrounding his re-election bid and human rights concerns, Bukele’s popularity remains high among supporters who credit him for improving security and combating extortion by gangs.
 
Brazil: Former President Jair Bolsonaro surrenders passport amidst investigation
On 08 February, the former Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, surrendered his passport as authorities investigated his alleged involvement in the storming of Brazil’s Congress by his supporters in 2023. Bolsonaro, accused by police of leading a failed plot to retain power after losing the election to his left-wing rival, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, denounced the investigation as politically motivated. He stated: “I left the government more than a year ago and I continue to suffer relentless persecution.” Three of Bolsonaro’s allies, including the head of his political party, were arrested on suspicion of conspiring to keep him in office following his electoral defeat. On 8 January 8 2023, frustrated supporters stormed key government buildings. With more than 1,400 people charged over their alleged role in these riots, Brazil’s federal police has said that the 8 February operation sought to target a “criminal organisation involved in the attempted coup.”
  
Guatemala: Ties maintained with Taiwan amid pursuit of closer economic relations with China
On 08 February, Guatemalan President Bernardo Arevalo reassured that the country had no plans to sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan despite pursuing stronger economic ties with China. Guatemala, one of the few nations still allied with Taiwan, remained committed to maintaining formal relations with both Taiwan and China simultaneously. He asserted: “We’re not choosing.” Despite recent speculation regarding a potential shift in foreign policy, Arevalo affirmed Guatemala’s steadfast allegiance to Taiwan while simultaneously seeking to establish trade relations with China.
 
The US: President Biden defends memory amid scrutiny over handling of classified documents
On 08 February, US President Joe Biden staunchly defended his memory in the face of renewed scrutiny over his handling of classified documents, ahead of the upcoming presidential election in November. In a press conference at the White House, Biden criticized Special Counsel Robert Hur for suggesting that his memory was severely limited, particularly regarding significant events such as the year his son Beau passed away. He stated: “There’s even reference that I don’t remember when my son died. How in the hell dare he raise that?” Biden, the oldest US president in history, affirmed that his memory remains intact and disputed assertions of mishandling sensitive documents, denying allegations of sharing classified information with his ghostwriter. The Special Counsel’s report concluded that Biden would not face criminal charges due to his cooperation with investigators, and Hur wrote: “Mr Biden would likely present himself to a jury, as he did during our interview of him, as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”
 
The US: Donald Trump dominates Nevada Republican caucus amid limited competition
On 08 February, Donald Trump secured a landslide victory in the Nevada Republican caucus, facing minimal competition as his only serious challenger, Nikki Haley, opted out due to an electoral process dispute and contested in the primaries instead. With over 99 per cent of the vote, Trump is set to claim all 26 delegates from the state, significantly bolstering his lead in the race for the Republican nomination. Addressing supporters in Las Vegas, Trump expressed confidence, stating: “If we win this state, we easily win the election in November.” Haley claimed that the caucus had been “rigged for Trump,” but she suff

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