The World This Week

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The World This Week
ASEAN-Australia Summit, and President Biden’s State of the Union Address

  GP Team

The World This Week #255, Vol. 6, No.9
10 March 2024

Akhil Ajith and Gopi Keshav

ASEAN-Australia Summit 2024: A strong regional partnership in making
Akhil Ajith

What happened?
On 04 March, Canberra hosted the Australia-ASEAN special summit in Melbourne, marking 50 years of Australia’s dialogue partnership with ASEAN. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said: “More than any other part of the world, Southeast Asia is where Australia’s destiny lies.” Laos, the ASEAN chair in 2024 co-hosted the three-day Summit that focused on strengthening partnerships between the two sides.  The focus areas of the summit include the following: Business, Emerging Leaders, Climate and Clean Energy, and Maritime Cooperation.

On 06 March, a joint declaration – “The Melbourne Declaration - A Partnership for the Future.” On common security issues and Australia, the declaration said: “To bolster peace and security in our region and address emerging common security challenges, we commit to enhancing and expanding the scope and sophistication of our practical defence cooperation. As members of the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus), we recommit to the ADMM-Plus framework and the value of defence cooperation as means for confidence building and conflict prevention, as well as capacity building. We note Australia's active participation in the ADMM-Plus, including co-chairing of the ADMM-Plus Experts' Working Group (EWG) on Military Medicine (2021-2023) with Brunei Darussalam, and look forward to Australia's co-chairing of the ADMM-Plus EWG on Cyber Security with Cambodia for the EWGs Cycle of 2024-2027.” 

On South China Sea, the declaration said: “We recognise the benefits of having the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability, and prosperity. In this regard, we support the full and effective implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in its entirety. We encourage all countries to avoid any unilateral actions that endanger peace, security and stability in the region. We emphasise the need to maintain and promote an environment conducive to the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) negotiations. We underscore the importance of further progress towards the early conclusion of an effective, and substantive COC that is consistent with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS.”

On Myanmar, it said: “We discussed the developments in Myanmar and reaffirm our support for the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus as ASEAN's main reference to address the political crisis in Myanmar. We strongly condemn the continued acts of violence and call for immediate cessation.”

What is the background?
First, a brief background to Australia and ASEAN partnership. Australia became ASEAN’s dialogue partner in 1974; in 2014, both became strategic partners, and in 2021, they established a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Under “Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040,” Canberra has identified several priority sectors that can help boost trade between Australia and Southeast Asia. These include agriculture, healthcare, infrastructure, the digital economy, and education. Australia’s two-way trade with ASEAN countries amounted to USD 178 billion in 2022.

Second, the differences between Australia and ASEAN. Despite the partnerships, there are differences between the two, which was evident in building a consensus towards the “Melbourne Declaration,” especially over three critical issues: South China Sea, the War in Gaza, and Myanmar. On the South China Sea, there was no mention of China; though Australia and the Philippines wanted to include it, rest of the ASEAN countries was against it for the fear of antagonizing China. On the war in Gaza, they could agree on a ceasefire and humanitarian support, but diverged on the support to Israel and Palestine. There was a strong consensus on the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, which was not invited to the forum. 

Third, the focus on ASEAN Centrality, and the importance of the Indo-Pacific region. Australia sees ASEAN as an important component in the changing regional order, which is increasingly contested by the US-China great power rivalry. ASEAN’s objective lies in resolving differences and focusing on more inclusivity and connectivity across the region, which Australia is increasingly courting in its foreign policy approach

What does it mean?
First, the importance of ASEAN for Australia. Canberra aims to reduce the gap with ASEAN, as the two sides differ in cultures, historical backgrounds, and political systems. Australia wants to regain its presence in the region as it had before in 1974, which had declined considerably in trade compared to other East Asian countries. Partnership with ASEAN will allow Australia to increase its regional footprint. 

Second, the China factor, and ASEAN's hesitation. China’s influence over ASEAN countries had grown since 1990’s through trade, investments, and economic. The above dependence on China makes the ASEAN countries to tread a careful path in the larger global rivalry between the US and China. However, China’s growing militarization in the South China Sea through the construction and militarization of artificial islands pose security threat for some of the ASEAN countries like the Philippines and Vietnam. China will remain a factor in ASEAN’s relations with the US, Australia and any Indo Pacific initiatives.

President Biden’s State of the Union address: Key Takeaways
Gopi Keshav

On 07 March, the US President Joe Biden delivered the State of the annual Union address. The address was considered crucial, as this would be his last before the Presidential elections. There was an expectation, that Biden would address all key issues, and use it as a starting point for his Presidential campaign. The address looked at domestic issues within the US, regional issues, especially vis-à-vis the Mexican border, and international issues mainly Ukraine, Russia and gaza.

1. An “Unprecedented”  moment “in the history of the Union,” and the need to “wake up the Congress” and “alert the American people.”
Biden started his speech, looking back to an earlier speech in 1941 Franklin Roosvelt. Referring to Hitler’s advances and the war in Europe, Roosevelt made a statement then on the moment, which the latter considered it as “moment unprecedented in the history of the Union.” According to Biden, “President Roosevelt’s purpose was to wake up Congress and alert the American people that this was no ordinary time.  Freedom and democracy were under assault in the world.” He continued in his address: “And, yes, my purpose tonight is to wake up the Congress and alert the American people that this is no ordinary moment either.  Not since President Lincoln and the Civil War have freedom and democracy been under assault at home as they are today.” For Biden, “freedom and democracy are under attack at - both at home and overseas at the very same time.”

2. Standing up against Putin, Supporting Urkaine and Strengthening NATO
On Europe, the main message from Putin was relating to the above three – stopping Putin from his march “invading Ukraine and sowing chaos throughout Europe and beyond.” The address then calls for to support Ukraine, which could stop Putin, if the US stands up with Ukraine. In Biden’s words: “Ukraine can stop Putin if we stand with Ukraine and provide the weapons that it needs to defend itself…That is all — that is all Ukraine is asking.  They’re not asking for American soldiers.  In fact, there are no American soldiers at war in Ukraine, and I’m determined to keep it that way.”

3. On Palestine and Israel: “The only real solution to the situation is a two-state solution over time.”  
In his address, as expected, Biden emphasised Hamas releasing the hostages, Israel doing more on the humanitarian situation, and a six weeks ceasefire. On the war against Hamas, Biden said: “Israel has a right to go after Hamas.  Hamas could end (the conflict)…by releasing the hostages, laying down arms, and surrendering those responsible for October 7.” On the humanitarian situation, he said, “Israel must also do its part.  Israel must allow more aid into Gaza and ensure humanitarian workers aren’t caught in the crossfire To the leadership of Israel, I say this: Humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip.  Protecting and saving innocent lives has to be a priority.” On the final solution, Biden said: “As we look to the future, the only real solution to the situation is a two-state solution over time.”

4. Emphasis on the bipartisan bill to address the immigration problem
Biden wants Congress to send a bipartisan bill on the border issue. According to him, a “bipartisan bill would hire 1,500 more security agents and officers, 100 more immigration judges to help tackle the backload of 2 million cases, 4,300 more asylum officers, and new policies so they can resolve cases in six months instead of six years now.”

TWTW Regional Roundups
News from around the World 

Akriti Sharma, Padmashree Anandhan, Anu Maria Joseph, Femy Francis, Dhriti Mukherjee, Shamini Velayutham, Akhil Ajith, Vetriselvi Baskaran, Sanjay Manivannan, Navinan GV, Narmatha S, and Gopi Keshav.

China This Week
China: Xi Jinping on the “new productive forces”
On 05 March, Chinese President Xi Jinping meeting the deputies of Jiangsu province warned of the economic problems awaiting China, probable due to unregulated growth ambitions. Following the discussion in the National People’s Congress, he states that the aim to promote new productive forces for growth should not give rise to economic bubbles caused by unfettered expansion. He advised that in the face of technological revolution and industrial transformation, they should seize opportunities, further innovation and expand emerging industries. Xi said: “We must prevent local rush and oppose irrational, blind investments that create bubbles,” and that while they would promote new productive forces but also not neglect or give up on traditional industries. The annual session of NPC focused on the revival of the economy, creating a new productive force, ahead of a global tech race, but it has become weary of the overcapacity of its industries. Xi also proposed that no single model should be followed for the new productive forces but asked to take local conditions and resources into account. Stressing the importance of traditional industries, he said that they still account for major industrial output and therefore should not be given up, “establish the new before abolishing the old.”

China: Military budget proposal at the NPC meeting
On 05 March, an article in the South China Morning Post, titled, “China’s ‘two sessions’ 2024: defence budget signals military readiness, not imminent war, experts say,” by Amber Wang looked into the defence budget proposed in the 2024 “two sessions”. A 7.3 per cent growth is estimated for the military budget in 2024. The Ministry of Finance released the budget, where Premier Li Qiang addressed the 2024 gathering. Li highlighted the need to ramp up war readiness by expanding the reserve forces and stressing military loyalty.  Chinese military’s budget is the second largest in the world and is reckoned to grow by 1.67 trillion yuan as the tension in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea increases. A retired colonel from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Yue Gang said: “The growth of China’s military expenditure is consistent with the growth of GDP,” and that increased tensions in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait: “will not shake” Beijing’s established military policy.” Another PLA expert Fu Qianshao also iterated that the increase in the military capabilities is not because of the heightened tensions in the region but is by their growth trajectory and year-to-year plan.

China: Russia to collaborate on a nuclear space energy
On 05 March, the head of Roscomos, Yuri Borisov, said that both Russia and China intend to put a nuclear power plant on the lunar surface to help in future human settlement. He also mentioned Russia’s plans to build a nuclear-powered cargo spaceship. He said that Russia. Could contribute to nuclear space energy in its joint project with China. Previously, Russia’s attempts to mine the moon-faced massive setbacks as its recent Lunar spacecraft, the Luna-25, failed and crashed in 2023. In February, China said it aims to put Chinese astronauts on the Lunar surface before 2030. Its unmanned probe, Chang’e 6, is about to lift off by May to collect rock samples from the moon.

China: Maldives sign ‘free military assistance’ agreement
On 04 February, China and Maldives forged a defence cooperation agreement, where they offered free military assistance to further strengthen bilateral ties. Deputy Director of China’s Office for International Military Cooperation Major General Zhang Baoqun and Maldives Minister of Defense, Mohamed Ghassan Maumoon discussed the need for defence cooperation between the two countries. Before this Chinese ambassador to the Maldives, Wang Lixin donated 12 ambulances to the Maldives Health Ministry. The visit also comes after the Male allowed a Chinese research ship to make a port call. The agreement comes weeks after the Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu called for a withdrawal of Indian troops stationed there.

China: Thailand transfers 900 scam victims
On 03 March, Thailand’s Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin announced that 900 Chinese citizens that were trapped in Myanmar border scam centers were transferred to China. Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries have become hotspots for online fraud and human trafficking, where they were forced to work in scam centers by criminal gangs. The Royal Thai Police spearheaded the operations from 29 February to 02 March, where they transferred the Chinese nationals from the Myanmar border town of Myawaddy to the Thai district of Mae Sot and eventually boarded Chinese planes. PM Srettha said: “This was a joint voluntary operation between three countries, China, Myanmar and Thailand,” and that “The process was done voluntarily, based on humanitarian principles, it was not forced.” The operation used 15 flights and three days of trip to return to China. This comes after in 2023, Myanmar handed over 31,000 telecom fraud suspects to China, in a joint crackdown initiative between Myanmar and China.
East Asia and The Pacific This Week
Hong Kong: National Security law concerns the financial community
On 08 March, a new national security law draft bill was proposed at the city’s legislature, which included serious offences such as treason, espionage and theft of state secrets, sabotaging national security, and external interference which could buy life imprisonment. According to the government of Hong Kong, the bill is to fill the legislative gaps left by a national security law imposed on Hong Kong by China in 2020. The Chairman of the Swedish Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, Kristian Odebjer criticized the definitions of the law as ‘vague’, particularly for the theft of state secrets, including defence intelligence along with the information on the economy, and social and technological developments of the city. He stated: “This could negatively affect activities like research and due diligence that some of our members engage in.”

Australia: Prime Minister Anthony Albanese concerned about the tension in the South China Sea
On 06 March, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese expressed his concerns over the tension in the South China Sea, especially after the collision between Chinese and Philippines vessels. Manila claimed that the Philippines vessels carrying supplies to the Thomas Shoal were harassed by Chinese vessels as they blocked them. Prime Minister Albanese came when he was questioned on the same at the ASEAN summit in Australia, he stated that the behaviour was dangerous and that any miscalculations can lead to escalated conflict. He said: “I am very concerned and Australia is concerned about any unsafe and destabilising behaviour in the South China Sea.”
Taiwan: deputy foreign minister visits Tuvalu
On 04 March, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Eric Chen reported that Taiwan’s deputy foreign minister, Tien Chung-kwang, visited Tuvalu to congratulate and support Tuvalu’s newly elected government. On 05 March, Chen said that Tien would attend the newly elected government's celebrations, conduct bilateral meetings with the new prime minister, Feleti Teo, and return to Taiwan on 09 March. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the visit “demonstrates the solid ties between the two countries … as this year marks the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Taiwan and Tuvalu,” and will continue to work together for peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. The visit comes with growing speculation on Tuvalu’s potential diplomatic switch to China as its neighbouring country, Nauru, had switched its ties with Taiwan for China in January post-elections.

South East Asia This Week
Indonesia: Tourists to visit Taiwan in greater numbers
On 09 March, Nikkei Asia published an editorial on the topic, “Taiwan seeks more tourists from Indonesia,” by Randy Mulyanto saying that Taiwan is expecting a significant number of tourists from Indonesia as the number of visitors from mainland China has reduced due to the political tensions and the COVID pandemic. However, the number of visitors from Indonesia had risen to 201,980 in 2023, which is a great improvement from 78,162 tourists in 2022 due to the pandemic, according to the data from Taiwan Tourism Administration. To even increase the rate of tourists, the Taiwan Tourism Administration in Indonesia under the Ministry of Transportation and Communications, often conducts workshops on Taiwan tourism. Additionally, Taiwan launched a Travel Authorization Certificate program that enables Indonesian nationals to visit Japan, South Korea, or any Western country without a visa as long as they possess one of these documents.

Philippines: Ties with Australia have significantly increased
On 09 March, SCMP published an editorial on the topic, “The Philippines’ ties with Australia are ‘stronger than ever’. Is it a sign it has West’s backing in South China Sea?” by Maria Siow and Su-Lin Tan which outlines the President of the Philippines, Bongbong Marcos’ explanation on why the strategic ties between Australia and Philippines had “grown more important than ever.” He started with the long-known prosperity and the development of their ties which helps in maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. Marcos also stated the importance of strengthening cooperation as the Philippines is severely facing tensions with China in the South China Sea region. He continued to say that we must come together to face the challenge, as it cannot be done by one country itself. He addressed the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, saying, “This is meant to indicate to ASEAN member states and to the region that the Australia-Philippine strategic partnership is alive and well, and stronger than it has ever been.”

South Asia This Week
Nepal: PM announced his new Cabinet
On 06 March, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal reformed his Cabinet, appointing 20 new ministers from the CPN-UML, his own CPN (Maoist Centre), and the Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP). On 4 March, the prime minister assigned three ministers after abandoning the alliance with the Nepali Congress the day before and establishing a new ruling coalition that included the UML and other parties. Following that President Ramchandra Paudel swore in sixteen new Cabinet members at Sheetal Niwas on 06 March. Prime Minister named four ministers from his party, seven from CPN-UML, three from RSP, and two from the CPN. However, the Janata Samajbadi Party did not join the Cabinet despite its leader, Upendra Yadav, being one of four signatories to the eight-point agreement on the new government alliance. Following the development of the new political equation, the Congress officially withdrew its support for the government on 05 March, vowing to remain in opposition. According to the constitution, Dahal must seek a vote of confidence within 30 days after the Congress's withdrawal, which begins on 06 March.

Maldives: MNDF to head Indian helicopters and civilian crew
On 07 March, while addressing a press conference, the Principal Director of Plans, Policy, and Resources Management for the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), Colonel Ahmed Mujuthaba Mohamed mentioned that the Maldives Defence Force will be heading the helicopter given by India and the civilian crew. He confirmed discussions on Indian troops' withdrawal are on board and highlighted President Mohamed Muizzu’s decision of not allowing any foreign troops after 10 May. This comes ahead of the 10 March for the first phase of the removal of Indian troops, fixed by President Muizzu. So far, there are 88 Indian military personnel in Maldives to operate two helicopters and an aircraft – as per Maldives authorities.

Maldives: Technical personnel replaced are civilians, not soldiers
On 06 March, the Sun Online reported the Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) official statement that the technical personnel from India are civilians and not soldiers. The MNDF confirmed through various security screening that the technical personnel from India are civilians, not soldiers. Colonel Ahmed Mujthaba, MNDF’s Principal Director of Plans, Policy, and Resource Management, said that the removal of Indian military personnel who were stationed in the Maldives is being performed in compliance with the significant diplomatic discussions. Ahead of President Mohamed Muizzu’s initiative to clear Indian troops stationed in the Maldives, Colonel assured that no foreign soldiers would remain on their soil after May 10.

Maldives: Free military assistance agreement signed with China
On 05 March, the Maldives and China signed a defense cooperation agreement, marking a significant shift in their bilateral relations. This move comes after the Maldivian President, Mohamed Muizzu, set a deadline to withdraw the first group of Indian military personnel from the Maldives. The agreements were formalized in a ceremony, with the Maldives Minister of Defence, Ghassan Maumoon, and the Deputy Director of the Office for International Military Cooperation of the People's Republic of China. According to the agreement, China will provide military assistance to the Maldives at no cost, which could deepen military and strategic ties between the two countries. The specifics of the assistance have not been disclosed, leading to speculation about the nature and scope of the military support. Additionally, a parallel agreement was signed concerning the Chinese research vessel Xiang Yang Hong 3 entering into the Maldivian waters. The Maldives, situated in a strategically vital location in the Indian Ocean, plays a crucial role in maritime security and trade routes. The current government's increased engagement with China signals a strategic pivot, potentially recalibrating the balance of power and influence in the region.

India: INS Kolkata rescued a bulk carrier in the Gulf of Aden
On 07 March, according to The Hindu, INS Kolkata assisted MV True Confidence, Barbados bulk carrier when it was attacked by a drone or missile in the Gulf of Aden and shipwrecked. The Warship saved 21 lives including one Indian. The Indian Navy stated: “On March 6, there was a fire onboard and critical injuries to some of the crew members. INS Kolkata, deployed for maritime security operations, arrived at the scene of action at 4.45 p.m. and rescued 21 crew members, including one Indian national.” The rescued crews were immediately shifted to Djibouti. Similarly, such an incident happened on 05 March, when MSC Sky II, a Liberian-flagged container vessel with a crew of 23 personnel including 13 Indians was rescued by INS Kolkata after requested by MSC Sky II.

India: External Affairs Minister’s visit to Japan and South Korea
On 06 March, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar completed his three-day visit to Japan.  Both countries discussed cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. The Minister highlighted that the visit will focus on potential cooperation gathering on new and critical technologies, such as semiconductors, artificial intelligence, renewables, and electric mobility. He said that India and China are big power players "but to be accurate, there are others as well, including the Gulf, ASEAN, Latin America and Africa." In South Korea, the Indian Minister of External Affairs co-chaired the Joint Commission Meeting that reviewed bilateral cooperation and explored avenues for further strengthening them. The MEA of India said: “The India-Republic of Korea Special Strategic Partnership has expanded to diverse areas of cooperation, which include trade, investments, defence, education, Science and Technology, and culture. The visit was aimed at bolstering the semiconductor industry of India and cooperation in new emerging technologies.

India: Insistence of “stringent monitoring” of Pakistan by IMF
On 06 March, The Hindu reported that India had taken a tough stance and called for "stringent monitoring" of any emergency funds provided by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to Pakistan, emphasising that such funds must not be redeployed to pay defence bills or repay loans from other countries. Executive Director Krishnamurthy Subramanian, represented India in the IMF’s executive board, during a recent review of the Fund's ongoing USD 3 billion short-term Stand-By Arrangement (SBA) with Pakistan, which was granted in July. India has generally refrained from voting on loans sought by Pakistan, and it did so again last July when the SBA was granted. When the board reviewed the loan in mid-January, India's representative refrained from voting again, but the IMF dispersed USD 700 million to Pakistan. However, this time, the Indian government urged the Executive Director to emphasize the IMF board's need to establish "checks and balances and ensure stringent monitoring" of Pakistan's use of IMF funds. Pakistan’s new government is urging immediate talks with the IMF to seek additional fund support, which includes the USD 1.2 billion balance under the SBA which expires next month.

Sri Lanka: IMF proposals discussed with party leaders
On 08 March, Daily Mirror reported that President Ranil Wickremesinghe called for a meeting with party leaders to discuss the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) proposals. The purpose of the meeting is to provide an opportunity for opposition party leaders in Parliament, including Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa, leader of the National People's Power (NPP) Anura Kumara Dissanayake, and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader Sivagnanam Sridharan, to engage in discussions with the IMF delegation. This meeting offers a chance for these leaders to discuss the IMF's proposals and potentially influence any decisions made about them. The President's Media Division (PMD) has announced that the meeting has been open to all party leaders interested in participating. The PMD has also stated that individuals who are interested in joining the discussion have been allowed to participate alongside the invited leaders.  The IMF's proposals are likely to have significant implications for the country's economic future, as the organization typically provides financial assistance and guidance to countries needing economic support. The meeting between the party leaders and the IMF delegation is an important step in ensuring that the government's decision-making process is transparent and inclusive, as it allows for a diverse range of perspectives to be considered.

Sri Lanka: Rajapaksas meets the PM
On 08 March, Daily Mirror highlighted a meeting between President Ranil Wickremesinghe, and Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) leaders Mahinda Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa. The meeting aimed to discuss outstanding political matters ahead of the upcoming presidential elections. However, no final decision was made on the formation of an alliance between the parties, as the SLPP leaders sought clarity on two policy matters - alienation of national assets and power devolution - from the President to decide on the party's stand. The SLPP appears to be sticking to its original ideology regarding state institutions and seeks some compromise from the President in his plan for restructuring them. The parties also raised concerns about the proposed contours of power devolution to resolve the political question of northern and eastern provinces. Despite the lack of a decision, the parties decided to accelerate their political activities and decide on final decisions depending on how far they can find common ground on areas of each other's concern.

Sri Lanka: Halt in debt repayment due to debt reconstruction
On 06 March, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe initiated the idea of a debt restructuring process to reduce the foreign debt from 9.5 per cent  to 4.5 per cent of its total GDP. The country hopes to halt repaying debts until 2027, and after the debt reconstruction process, it will resume paying in 2042. The Finance Minister stressed the necessity of restructuring all loans from domestic to international and says it is to attain temporary relief from all the debt defaults from 2023 to 2027 and continue to pay from 2027 to 2042. The debt repayment would have been easier if the country had maintained a standard economic state after the economic crisis in 2022. It was due to the economic crisis that revenue collection dropped and bankruptcy was declared.

Bangladesh: Japanese health project launched in Rohingya camps
On 07 March, the Dhaka Tribune reported that the Japanese Ambassador visited Bhasan Char, where over 30,000 Rohingya refugees have been relocated from the Cox’s Bazar camps. During his visit, the ambassador attended the inauguration ceremony of a new project to provide medical equipment for pathological tests and dental care. This project, supported by the Japanese government through the Grant Assistance for Grass-roots Human Security Projects (GGHSP), is being implemented by an NGO. The project is expected to enhance the quality of healthcare services in Bhasan Char by providing necessary equipment such as a Biochemistry Analyzer and a portable Dental X-ray. The ambassador expressed hope that this equipment would improve the healthcare environment in Bhasan Char, thereby supporting Bangladesh's efforts to help the Rohingya people. Japan has been a significant supporter through its GGHSP, having extended approximately USD 16.9 million in grants.

Bangladesh: The US calls to upgrade labour laws
On 05 March, The Daily Star reported that the US has called for upgrading labour laws in Bangladesh. The United States reiterated its desire to enhance Bangladesh's labour laws to global standards to expand economic relations in President Biden's 2024 policy agenda. In 2023, representing this policy agenda, the US Trade Representative (USTR) negotiated with the Commerce Ministry on the significance of this trade agenda by Biden's administration. This was officially disclosed on March 1 in President Biden's 2024 Trade Policy Agenda and 2024 Annual Report to Congress. It states that ever since Bangladesh terminated its eligibility for the Generalized System of Preference in 2013, some of the labor issues, like worker safety standards and worker rights issues, have risen.

Bhutan: PM pledges press freedom
On 07 March, Kuensel Online reported that the struggles Bhutanese journalists face in obtaining information from authorities would end soon as Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay's pledged support and willingness to engage with the media is seen as a beacon of hope for the media community. At a recent Meet-the-Press event, the Prime Minister underscored the media's pivotal role in upholding democratic values and ensuring government accountability to the public. He emphasized that the media acts as a vital link for this accountability and should actively fulfill its duty by critiquing and engaging in discussions on government policies that may be deemed ineffective or potentially harmful in the long run. The Prime Minister also stressed the importance of fulfilling campaign promises while recognizing the media's role in shedding light on commitments that could have adverse consequences. Despite Bhutan's drop in press freedom ranking due to government regulations on media oversight, the Prime Minister encouraged the media to fearlessly serve as a reminder and partner in shaping the 13th plan with fresh ideas.

Bhutan: Enhances digital connectivity with India's support
On 04 March, Kuensel highlighted that after eight years of negotiations, the third internet gateway for Bhutan is expected to operationalize soon after the Service Level Agreement (SLA) is signed between the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) India and Bhutan Telecom Limited. The gateway will be established in Gelephu, Bhutan connecting Gelephu-Bongaigaon-Agartala in India to Cumilla-Kuakata in Bangladesh to Singapore. The gateway will help improve resilience and reliability, reduce dependence on a single link, and provide a safety net. The GovTech officials are also exploring strategies to reduce the overall price of the internet for citizens. The agreed subsidized service will enhance speed and will be cost-efficient.

Pakistan: IMF says it looks forward to working with new government, calls for resolving electoral issues
On 08 March, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said it would support forming a new economic programme for Pakistan upon any request from the new government while urging Pakistan to peacefully resolve electoral disputes. An IMF spokesperson stated: “We look forward to engaging with the new government to complete the second review under the current Stand-by Arrangement and, should the government request, support the formulation of a new medium-term economic programme.” Though the spokesperson did not comment on domestic politics, the call to political leaders asking them to resolve electoral disputes was seen as an unusual step taken by the IMF. The spokesperson clarified that while the current focus was on “the completion of the current Stand-by program, which ends in April 2024,” the IMF was looking “forward to working with the new government on policies to ensure macroeconomic stability.” Pakistan’s authorities had earlier stated that they intend to seek a USD six billion loan from the IMF to help debt repayments in 2024.

Pakistan: New government launches PKR 7.5 billion Ramzan package for poor families
On 07 March, the PKR 7.5 billion PM Ramzan package, which was approved in a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, began and is set to continue till 9 April, a day before Eid. This package will provide roughly 40 million poor families essential items at subsidized rates from utility stores across the country. A subsidy of PKR 77 per kg will be given on a 20 kg bag of wheat flour, and PKR 70 on ghee. Sharif instructed authorities to not compromise on the quality of products, and establish special sale points for flour distribution. He also emphasized that strict monitoring should be done to ensure that no one faces problems during the distributions, with action taken against hoarders who may create an artificial price hike. To maximize the benefits, Sharif called for launching a nationwide awareness campaign that would make the system more integrated and effective for the redressal of complaints.

Pakistan: Sindh: Provincial assembly passes resolution to declare Zulfikar Ali Bhutto a “National Democratic Hero”
On 07 March, the Sindh Assembly passed a resolution declaring PPP founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto a “National Democratic Hero,” following the Supreme Court’s (SC) verdict on Bhutto’s death sentence. The assembly unanimously welcomed the SC’s decision and passed a resolution tabled by Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah. The resolution stated: “This ruling highlights the importance of upholding the principles of justice and ensuring that all individuals, regardless of their status, are entitled to a fair trial by the Constitution. It serves as a reminder of the need to address past injustices and uphold the rule of law in the pursuit of justice, and accountability.” It also endorsed the “sacrifices of Begum Nusrat Bhutto and Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, who sacrificed their lives to seek justice against the cold-blooded judicial murder of Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto,” and demanded the Sindh government to approach the Centre to declare Bhutto a “National Democratic Hero.” Shah highlighted the importance of necessary amendments to laws to avoid such an “atrocity” in the future. A JI Member of the Provincial Assembly (MPA) endorsed the resolution while emphasizing that “democratic personalities should be given sentences based on concrete evidence, not by force.” Additionally, a PTI-backed independent MPA said that Bhutto’s death sentence proved what happens to an individual who fights for the nation.

Central Asia This Week
Azerbaijan: Demands the return of four villages
On 09 March, according to Deputy Prime Minister Shahin Mustafayev Azerbaijan stressed the “immediate return of four villages” under Armenia’s occupation. On 07 March, according to Mustafayev's office, the state commissions of Azerbaijan and Armenia met for the seventh time in order to discuss the delimitation of their mutual borders, as the neighboring countries continue talks on a peace treaty. The statement released by the PM’s office stated: “The issue of the return of four exclave villages (Upper Eskipara, Sofulu, Berhudarli, and Kerki), which are under the occupation of Armenia, will be resolved within the framework of the border determination process.”

Kazakhstan: Confirms death of two citizens in Russia
On 09 March, Kazakhstan confirmed the death of two of its citizens who were shot dead in Russia. The Kazakh Committee of National Security (KNB) in a statement said: “The media published reports about the killing of two Kazakh citizens by Russian law-enforcement agencies during an attempt to organize a terrorist attack in the Russian Federation.” It further said: “We can confirm the Kazakh citizenship and the deaths in Russia.” However, according to Russian state-run news agency TASS, on 07 March, Federal Security Service (FSB) asserted that it had shot dead two suspects of the Wilayat Khorasan terrorist group “whose members were planning to commit a terrorist act against one of the Jewish religious institutions in Moscow.”

Armenia: Plans to apply for EU membership
On 08 March, speaking on the sidelines of a diplomatic forum in Antalya, Turkey, Armenia Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan said that the country is considering applying for the European Union (EU) membership, as it anticipates having closer ties with the West amidst its tensions with traditional ally Russia. He said: “Many new opportunities are largely being discussed in Armenia nowadays and that will not be a secret if I say that includes membership in the European Union.” “The people of Armenia do have European aspirations, we are passing through a process and no one can be sure or predict the end of this process,” he added. According to Reuters, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan during his tenure has deepened ties with Europe and the US. According to Pashinyan, Russia sought to undermine his government.

Middle East This Week
Iran: Condemns UN report
On 09 March, Iran opposed a United Nations report that accused Iran of “Physical violence” that led to the death of Mahsa Amini and the crackdown of protests followed by that. The fact-finding committee appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council disclosed that the government’s actions against women in Iran are an example of a “crime against humanity”. The report further stated that the government's actions against the protesters were inhumane. The spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran Nasser Kanani accused the committee of “lying and inverting the facts”. He said that the report had “baseless claims and false and biased information, without a legal basis.”

Syria: FM calls for Israel to return to Golan Heights
On 09 March, in an interview with Al-Ain News, Syria’s Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad spoke about the Syrian regime’s present regional policies. It was announced on the fringes of the 161st session of the Arab Foreign Ministers' conference, which was held in Cairo recently. A large portion of this occurs in the context of the current conflict in Gaza, drawing attention to other problems that might not otherwise be as pressing. He also discussed “some of the developments that concern Syria, including the recent Israeli strikes and other regional developments that were not devoid of renewing the firm position on the Palestinian issue.” Concerning the Golan and southern Lebanon, the Syrian envoy called them “occupied Arab land.” This seems to advocate for a Palestinian state in addition to the Golan by the Mount Dov region on the border between Israel and Lebanon.

Israel: “Ball is in Hamas’s court” says US Secretary Antony Blinken
On 08 March, According to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Hamas must consent to a short-term ceasefire in order for increased humanitarian aid to reach Gaza and to facilitate negotiations on an "enduring resolution" to the conflict.  The terrorist organization from Palestine departed Cairo to negotiate a ceasefire in advance of Ramadan, fearing that hostilities would worsen during the Muslim holy month. The failure to reach a deal that would have required Hamas to release some of the captives it still has in exchange for a 40-day truce was attributed by Israel and Hamas to one another. There would also be some release of Palestinian security prisoners detained in Israel.

Israel: Causality reported and continuous raid persists
On 04 March, according to Israel’s emergency medical service, Magen David Adom (MDA), one person was killed, and two resulted in injury after an anti-tank missile was fired towards Margaliot in northern Israel. MDA paramedic Walid Kezel stated: “Together with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) medical personnel, we provided medical treatment and evacuated five wounded people who suffered from shrapnel injuries with Air Force helicopters.” On the same day, the IDF had completed its two-week raid on the Z2 neighborhood of Gaza City, destroying nearly 100 operatives of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. On 2 March, 17 people were killed after Israeli fighter jets attacked the residential building in the Deir el-Balah area and the Jabalia refugee camp of the Gaza Strip. On the same day, after a raid on the Kafr Nima village in Ramallah, the Israeli soldiers killed a teen, on the other hand, the Israeli forces arrested a young man while raiding Qalqilya city and the eastern Azzun town.

Qatar: Calls for “urgent international action”
On 07 March, in addition to promising an additional USD 25 million to support the United Nations Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), Qatar called for the need for “urgent international action” to stop the conflict in Gaza and address its “catastrophic humanitarian conditions.” Qatar's Permanent Representative to the UN Sheikha Alya Al-Thani, announced during her speech to the UN General Assembly. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement stated: “Her Excellency pointed out the provision of additional support from the State of Qatar to UNRWA of USD 25 million to help meet the emergency needs that UNRWA is currently facing, based on Qatar’s firm positions in supporting and assisting the fraternal Palestinian people.”

Iraq: Targets power stations, Turkish drone attack kills two fighters
On 06 March, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq in a statement said that it had targeted a power station at the Haifa Airport by using drones. On 29 February, according to Iraqi security sources, a Turkish drone strike hit northern Iraq and killed two fighters from the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), an affiliated group with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Africa This Week
Zimbabwe: US imposes sanctions on President Mnangagwa for corruption and human rights allegations
On 05 March, the US imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa under allegations of corruption and human rights abuses. The White House stated: "We continue to witness gross abuses of political, economic, and human rights. The targeting of civil society and severe restrictions on political activity have stifled fundamental freedoms, while key actors, including government leaders, have siphoned off public resources for personal gains.” First Lady Auxillia Mnangagwa, Vice President Constantino Chiwenga and Defence Minister Oppah Muchinguri are additionally placed under sanctions for similar allegations.

Ghana: President to wait for Supreme Court ruling before signing anti-LGBTQ bill
On 05 March, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo said that he would not sign the anti-LGBTQ bill until the Supreme Court decides on its constitutionality. His decision came after the Ministry of Finance warned that the country would lose billions of dollars in Work Bank funding if it became a law. On 28 February, The Ghanaian parliament passed the bill with a majority. The bill imposes a three-year sentence for those who identify as LGBTQ and a five-year sentence for those who support and fund LGBTQ groups.

Americas This Week
Canada: PM Trudeau still uncertain on reversing decision to pause funding to UNRWA
On 07 March, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said no decision had been made on whether funding to the UN Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) would be resumed, following Israeli allegations that some staff were involved in the 7 October Hamas attacks. While the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had recently cited government sources who said Canada would reverse its decision to pause funding, Trudeau confirmed that Canada would “continue to look at this situation” and “watch the UN as it looks into what's happening within this organisation.” Following Israel’s allegations, 16 donors paused their funding to the UNRWA. However, Trudeau acknowledged that “Canadians have very strong feelings” about the conflict in Gaza, and acknowledged the need to “get aid into Gaza” to help the “heart wrenching” disaster and “humanitarian crisis” in the region.

The US: Key takeaways from the Super Tuesday results
On 05 March, millions of voters in 15 states and American Samoa chose their preferred party candidates for both the Democratic and Republican parties, marking the biggest day in the 2024 race for the White House- Super Tuesday. US President Joe Biden and former US President Donald Trump dominated the Democratic and Republican polls respectively.Trump won in 14 of the 15 states, securing a significant margin in some. His opponent, Nikki Haley, was able to win in Vermont; however, she suspended her campaign the next day. Many of her donors were also beginning to feel discouraged, as Trump’s inevitable win became more obvious. While suspending her campaign, she stated: “I congratulate him [Trump] and wish him well. I wish anyone well who would be America’s president.” She also made it clear that she would not endorse Trump, and that he had to “earn the votes of those in our party and beyond it who did not support him.” While Trump told his supporters in Florida that it is called “Super Tuesday for a reason,” Haley’s win in Vermont and performance in Virginia and North Carolina indicated dissatisfaction with Trump among Republican voters. Biden won in all 15 states in the democratic primaries and caucuses. However, while he may not have had any challenges from within the Democratic party, he faced challenges with regard to voter sentiment, in light of his Gaza policy. In Michigan, 12 per cent of the voters cast ballots for “uncommitted,” as part of an organised Gaza war protest. Similarly, in Minnesota, 20 per cent of the voters chose the “uncommitted” option, and in North Carolina, 12 per cent opted for “no preference.” Pro-Palestinian groups stated that they intend to do the same for the Washington primaries, indicating that Biden is likely to face challenges in securing votes if he does not make substantial changes in his Gaza war policy.

Ecuador: IMF may hold talks on beginning a new programme
On 07 March, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) stated that Ecuadorean officials had requested beginning talks on a potential new programme with the IMF, after which staff began “actively engaging with the authorities to assess the economic situation and support the reforms to address the challenges facing the country.” This statement was noted by IMF spokesperson Julie Kozack, who further highlighted that Ecuador’s “recent wave of violence has come at a time of a challenging macroeconomic and fiscal outlook” for the country. As per LSEG data, on 7 March, Ecuador’s international dollar bonds rose.

Venezuela: Date for presidential elections announced
On 05 March, Venezuela’s ruling party-aligned National Electoral Council announced that presidential elections would be held on 28 July. It is expected that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro will run again without any strong challenger after the country’s top court upheld a ban preventing opposition candidate Maria Corina Machado from running from office. In October 2023, she won the opposition’s independently run presidential primary and secured 90 per cent of votes, in spite of the government announcing a 15-year ban on her running for office. The US had directed Maduro to hold democratic elections and release all wrongfully detained political activists in exchange for the US lifting sanctions on oil; however, sanctions were reimposed following the ban on Machado.

About the Authors
Padmashree Anandhan is a Project Associate at NIAS, Bengaluru. Anu Maria, Femy Francis, Dhriti Mukherjee, Shamini Velayutham and Akhil Ajith are Research Assistants at NIAS, Bengaluru. Akriti Sharma is a PhD scholar at NIAS, Bengaluru. Vetriselvi Baskaran, Sanjay Manivannan, Navinan Govindaraj, Narmatha S and Gopi Keshav are postgraduate students at the University of Madras

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