The World This Week

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The World This Week
The Moscow Summit on Afghanistan, US-China Dialogue in Alaska, Return of the US to East Asia, UK Defence Policy Review and the Protests in Lebanon

  GP Team

The World This Week #111, Vol. 3, No. 12

Abigail Miriam Fernandez, Sukanya Bali, Avishka Ashok, Harini Madhusudan and Dincy Adlakha

Afghanistan: The Moscow Summit
What happened?
On 18 March, Russia hosted the first of the three international conferences to revive the stalled Afghanistan negotiations. The Moscow conference endorsed the 2020 UNSC resolution 2513 that opposed the restoration of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The conference was attended by representatives of the Afghan government (Abdullah Abdullah), Taliban (Mullah Baradar), Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation (Zalmay Khalilzad), and several other countries, including China, Pakistan, Iran, India.

At the opening of the conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, "We hope that today's conversation will help create conditions for achieving progressive inter-Afghan negotiations."  Four countries - Russia, China, the US and Pakistan issued a joint statement. It stated that they would not support the return of the Islamic emirate system in Afghanistan, recognized the will of the Afghan people for peace, called for a reduction in violence from all sides and the Taliban to not launch a Spring offensive.

What is the background?
First, the inability of the Doha negotiations to achieve a substantial outcome. Since the start of the negotiations in Doha in 2020, the sense of urgency to find common ground, reduce violence and move forward to substantive issues has not been possible. Instead, the negotiating parties continued to remain divided, both on procedural issues and on the validity of the US–Taliban agreement.

Second, the entry of other regional players. Before the Moscow Conference, regional players did not have a direct role in the Afghan negotiations.  A meeting in Turkey of regional players next month will follow the Moscow Conference.

Third, the United Nation's entry into the negotiations. Over recent months, the UN has expressed its readiness to assist in the Afghan talks. The spokesperson for the UN secretary-general said, "We stand ready to assist the parties as requested. Our role must and will always be in support of the Afghan people and must be agreeable to the parties in the conflict."

Fourth, renewed efforts by the US in reviving the stalled negotiations. The Moscow conference comes amid new developments in efforts to reach a political settlement in Afghanistan, including the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's letter to President Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah and the US-proposed draft for Afghan peace.

What does it mean?
The Moscow conference is seen as a critical first step in restarting the negotiations. However, the conference is merely an exit strategy constructed by the US-based on unrealistic timelines and agendas that do not solely bring a solution for Afghanistan.

With the UN entering the negotiation, it will move from the side-lines to a more central role. However, the UN has to go beyond the rhetoric and implement practical confidence-building measures between the two groups. Peace in Afghanistan needs to be 'Afghan-led' and 'Afghan-owned,' which is still missing. However, regional and external assistance is crucial for Afghanistan; left on their own would have repercussions. Thus, the negotiations would have to find a balance between the two.

The US and China: Biden's first dialogue with Beijing
What happened?
On 18 and 19 March, the US and China held their first in-person engagement in Anchorage, Alaska. Antony Blinken (Secretary of State) and Jake Sullivan (National Security Advisor), met Yang Jiechi (China's top diplomat) and Wang Yi (State Councilor and Foreign minister). 

Following the discussion, Jake Sullivan said, "We do not seek conflict, but we welcome stiff competition, and we will always stand up for our principles, for our people, and for our friends." Yang Jiechi said, "China opposes US interference in its internal affairs. We express our staunch opposition to such interference...The United States uses its military force and financial hegemony to carry out long-arm jurisdiction and suppress other countries."

What is the background?
First, the resumption of the US-China dialogue. It was the first high-level, in-person talk since the Biden administration took over. A sharp contrasting tone was seen between the two counterparts in their opening remarks. The talks concluded with a 'tough and direct' sense of disagreement and led to no diplomatic breakthrough. During Trump's presidency, the dialogue between the two nations primarily focused on unfair trade practices, technology, and intellectual theft. Trump's allegation of 'genocide' of Uighurs in Xinjiang and calling of the coronavirus a "Chinese virus" exacerbated the relation.

Second, a non-zero-sum meet. China showed a defensive posture to the US concerns over China's human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, aggression on its neighbours, and increasing cyber-attack. In response, China accused the US of making baseless allegations, pointed at US internal racial divisions and its military and financial supremacy to suppress countries. Nevertheless, the relation indicated a potential for cooperation in areas like Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, climate change, and coronavirus pandemic.

Third, China and Biden's restructuring of its relationship with the Indo-Pacific. On 12 March, the Quad allies agreed for a free, open, inclusive, healthy Indo-Pacific, anchored with democratic values and unconstrained coercion. The core agenda highlighted a defensive posture of the grouping towards China's expansionist and belligerent approach.  The US envoy also made its first visit to Japan and South Korea before the meet. The US reassured its support to defend and counter the "coercion and aggression" of China. 

What does it mean?
The US and China differences remain on key issues; however, there are also areas that they are likely to cooperate. The Alaska dialogue should be a starting point between China and the Biden administration.

The US, under Biden, seems to be pursuing a larger approach towards East Asia, which is different from Trump. The US officials' recent visits at the highest level to East Asia showcase the Biden administration's foreign policy pitch. Whether the latter is linked with the former remains to be seen.

Japan and South Korea: The US returns to East Asia
What happened?
On 16 March, the US Defence Secretary (Lloyd Austin), and US Secretary of State (Antony Blinken), joined their Japanese counterparts for the two-plus-two security conference in Tokyo. They discussed China's aggression and the challenges to human rights in the region. The joint statement released after the meeting revealed the two countries concern over "unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea and unilateral action that seeks to change the status quo" of the Senkaku islands.

On 18 March, the US delegation made an official visit to South Korea where they reconfirmed the US' allegiance to defend Seoul against North Korean and Chinese threats. Lloyd Austin stated, "Given the unprecedented challenges posed by both the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and China, the US-ROK alliance has never been more important." The two countries also agreed to cooperate on the denuclearization of the peninsula. 

What is the background?
First, the change in the US approach towards East Asia. The latest visit to Japan is the first-ever cabinet-level foreign visit made by the Biden Administration after the change in leadership in America. Antony Blinken also reiterated the importance of expanding relations with Japan by stating, "it is no accident that we chose Japan for the first Cabinet-level overseas travel." The US did not make an official visit to South Korea since 2016, after which there a lack of political activity during the Trump period. The visit to East Asia reveals the new administration's interest in the Indo-Pacific.  

Second, a greater push to contain China. During the meeting, the US made numerous statements that expressed the US sentiment towards China. Blinked said, "We will push back if necessary, when China uses coercion or aggression to get its way." He also expressed discontent and concern regarding China's policies in Xinjiang, illegal actions in the South China Sea and emphasized the importance of peace and stability. 

Third, addressing the North Korean threat. During the one-day visit to South Korea, the US stressed the necessity of denuclearization to maintain peace in the region. The US diplomats said that the US and its allies would "strategize together on how to confront shared threats such as North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs." The statements were made soon after Kim Yo-jong, North Korean Leader's sister, threatened the US to refrain from hostile behaviour towards North Korea to ensure a peaceful tenure. 

What does it mean?
The visits to Japan and South Korea signify the importance of the Indo-Pacific in American foreign policy. The Biden administration seems to be pursuing a more cautious approach towards North Korea while taking a harsh stance on China. The US involvement in dealing with denuclearization and China's rising aggression and influence will continue during the Biden era. 

UK: Defence and Foreign policy review indicates an expansion in strategy 
What happened?
On 16 March, the government released an Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development, and Foreign Policy. The document is seen as the UK's biggest strategic shake-up since the Cold War era. The highlights of the document include: threats facing the UK, a tilt toward the Indo-Pacific, increasing the nuclear stockpile, and plans to send troops across longer distances for more extended periods. There is a greater emphasis on science and technology, especially in the aftermath of the COVID crisis. This is the first document that shows the UK's step forward outside of the EU. 

On 15 March, news reports revealed that Trident plans to massively expand its nuclear weapons arsenal from 180 to 260 warheads. 

What is the background?
First, the emphasis on trade and S&T. Emphasizing trade and making it central in the review is a conceptual shift. Trade is seen as a tool playing a vital role in fulfilling the foreign policy agenda alongside development. The report also highlights science, technology, and digital as main areas of focus and promises bold new investments into research and development.

Second, the Indo- Pacific focus. There are obvious reasons for the UK to look away from their immediate neighbourhood after the Brexit. There is a strong focus on the Indo-Pacific in the review, which is an area of interest for the new Biden administration as well. The tilt would be beyond the defence and security context, which would include the increasing involvement of the UK in trade through the CPTPP. They also hope to support climate change action, promote British values, reinvigorate relationships with India, and pursue their request for partner status at ASEAN. This would essentially broaden their presence across the world. 

Third, defining terrorism, Russia, and China as the main threats. The report recommends a new Counter-Terrorism Operations Centre to bring together police and spies in a "state-of-the-art facility". It names the threat of nuclear attack by a terrorist/ non-state imminent by 2030 as a pretext to increasing the nuclear stockpile. Besides, the report names Russia as a strategic rival and looks at China's growth as a systemic challenge. 

Fourth, military spending. The main focus of defence spending is the new frontiers of space and cyber-warfare. There is an announcement of a £24 billion increase in defence spending. Significant cuts in troops, weaponry, and fighting vehicles have been announced, some of which may be replaced by drones. However, for security and deterrence from terrorists, the troops would train, exercise, and operate alongside allies and partners across all priority regions and build the capacity to fight in faraway places and for longer periods. 

What does it mean?
The document tries to portray a strategy with a careful blend of trade, defence, security, and diplomacy. There has been an immediate backlash to some of the plans that have been put forth. However, it seems like the UK is trying to tackle structural challenges while also hoping to retain a leadership status in the world. Though the long-term strategy caution against China, the UK's immediate challenge would be to remain balanced to ensure the trade relations do not clash with the security interests. The report places the UK's strategy on a promising pedestal, leaving behind the popular narrative of being a retreating power. 

Lebanon: Protestors' return demanding resolution of political and economic crises
What happened?
On 15 and 16 March, protestors returned to the streets. The recent agitation arose as the Lebanese Pound broke the economy and hit a record low. The currency has lost more than 85 per cent of its value since 2019. The protestors blocked significant cities in the country like Beirut, Tripoli, and Sidon by burning tires. 

On 17 March, the Central Bank of Lebanon received a letter from the EU, UN, and World Bank promising to provide aid to the bleeding country in US Dollars. Before the announcement, the aid was delivered in Lebanese currency; since it crashed, the aid will be provided in hard currency. Although no comments were made by the Lebanese diplomats, various Human Rights groups and urged the parties to create a mechanism for aid to be transferred to the people directly.

On the same day, Lebanese President Aoun met the PM-designate Hariri to discuss the formation of the government. The President was hasty and stern in suggesting Hariri either form the government quickly or step aside from the political canvas. Hariri mentioned that he aims to keep communications open, which was still the case.

What is the background?
First, the deterioration of Lebanon's economy. This has been the case during the recent period, and the massive explosion in the Beirut port in 2020 and COVID-19 have led the economy to a breaking point. Problems of corruption, bankruptcy in every sector and the blow to the banking sector (the only flourishing sector due to unrealistic interests provided)  fell apart, leading to Lebanon's downfall. The citizens have been facing food insecurity and electricity black-outs making the situation miserable and harsh. 

Second, the nature and composition of the government. The government has provided space to various sects of the country and mandated a Maronite Christian President, a Shia Muslim Speaker of Parliament, and a Sunni Muslim Prime Minister. Established through the 'Taif Agreement' in 1989, it has failed in stabilizing the country's politics. The political crisis deepened since 2019 when PM Hariri stepped down, and the government was dissolved. Internal players from various sects have been unable to come to a consensus and have ignored the economic chaos engulfing Lebanon, rendering the Sectarian form of government ineffectual.

Third, the international players and their involvement. The Saudi-Iran rivalry plays a role in the Lebanon crisis; it has led to alliances being formed within Lebanon that assert themselves with force. The US and Saudi backed camp has clashed on numerous occasions with the pro-Syrian camp as both hold different views on government formation. The US has been suspicious of Syrian involvement in the 2019 Beirut explosion and the financial crisis of the country. 

What does it mean?
The growing tensions in Lebanon can only point to further chaos in the country. The many sects involved in the power struggle may lead the country to a probable civil war. The failure of state institutions is another imminent concern. The formation of government is nowhere in sight leading to a mismanaged system of corruption and downfalls. However, the focus needs to be shifted from power politics to the civilians in the line of danger. Growing humanitarian crisis and loss of dignified life is the only certain card based on current situations.

Also in the news...
By Avishka Ashok   

East and Southeast Asia This Week
China: Minister expresses concerns over US violation of human rights at the UN
On 17 March, the minister of the Chinese mission to the United Nations conveyed that China was worried about human rights in the US. He said, "We regret that the United States of America did not accept most of the recommendations proposed by China at the current universal periodic review for the US." He also spoke about the poor handling of the pandemic, which led to the death of more than five lakh citizens and the pursuance of vaccine nationalism, leading to inequality in accessing vaccines.

China: Warning to the EU, following sanctions on four Chinese officials 
On 17 March, the European Union imposed sanctions on four Chinese officials for violating human rights in the Xinjiang region. The Chinese Ambassador to the EU cautioned the organization from approving the sanctions and said, "We ask the EU side to think twice. If some insist on confrontation, we will not back down, as we have no option but to fulfill our responsibilities to the people of our country." He also accused the group of countries of being influenced by the US and targeting China with misinformation. 

Hong Kong: Police officers resign and refuse to take oath
On 14 March, Sing Tao Daily reported that approximately ten police officers resigned from their positions after refusing to take the oath which calls for upholding the Basic Law, accepting allegiance to HKSAR and China and supporting the HKSAR government. The Assistant Commissioner said that the resignation would not be a loss to the police force and instead beneficial to both the individuals and the force. 

Japan: Tokyo Olympic creative chief resigns over a controversial comment
On 18 March, Tokyo Olympics creative chief Hiroshi Sasaki, who was responsible for the four opening ceremonies, resigned after having suggested last year that a plus-size comedian could appear as the "Olympig" for one of the ceremonies. He later apologized for his comment and will also resign from the committee. 

South Korea: Seoul conducts Korea-LAC Digital Cooperation Forum 
On 17 March, the South Korean government held a two-day online and offline annual event to host Latin American countries and enhance bilateral relations. The forum is focused on digital technologies and will provide a platform to discuss 5G networks, digital governance, cybersecurity and other issues. The annual forum is a part of the "New Deal Policy" of the South Korean government, which aims to encourage employment in green and digital industries. 

North Korea: Kim Yo-jong responds to the US attempts to form contacts with Pyongyang
On 16 March, the Deputy Director of the United Front Department of the Workers' Party and Kim Jong-un's sister announced that North Korea would break up the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification on account of South Korea's hostile attitude towards Pyongyang under the influence of the US. She warned the two countries to stop their military activities and exercises in the region. She also warned the US to withdraw its hostile policies towards North Korea. The Minister of Foreign Affairs also announced that the North Korean government would continue to ignore the advances from the US administration as long as they continue their hostile policies. 

Australia: Citizens protest and demand removal of perpetrators of crimes against women
On 15 March, 80,000 people participated in the March4Justice protests in 40 local events spread across Australia. The organization urged the public to sign a petition demanding four governmental actions: an independent and timely investigation into all cases of gendered violence; complete execution of all recommendations in the Australian Human Rights Commission's Respect at Work report; lift public funding for addressing gendered violence; and enactment of a federal gender equality act that will audit parliamentary practices.

Myanmar: Citizens continue to protest amid increasing crackdowns by the military government
On 16 March, ten civil servants were detained for taking part in the Civil Disobedience Movement. The State Administrative Council has also threatened the people with death penalties for violating martial law. On 14 March, more than 32 factories, shops and restaurants run by Chinese nationals were set ablaze. As on 20 March, the death toll in the country due to violence has reached 211; over 2400 people have been detained on charges of sedition and suspicion of participation in anti-government activities.  

South Asia This Week
India: US Defence Secretary on a three-day visit
On 19 March, the Defence Secretary of the US landed in New Delhi for a three-day visit. This is the first meeting between the American and Indian administrations after Biden took charge of the White House. The two sides agreed to cooperate on bilateral defence relations and enhance strategic partnership for peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. Lloyd Austin said, "Thrilled to be here in India. The breadth of cooperation between our two nations reflects the significance of our major defence partnership, as we work together to address the most pressing challenges facing the Indo-Pacific region."

India: Prime Minister of Finland meets Narendra Modi to discuss bilateral relations
On 16 March, the Prime Minister of Finland and the Indian Prime Minister conducted a virtual summit to discuss bilateral relations and other mutual issues in the regional and international sphere. The leaders from the two countries reviewed their bilateral agreements and agreed to work closely on maintaining a rule-based international order, promoting sustainable development and fighting conflict change. The two countries will increase investments in renewable and bio-energy, sustainability, edu-tech, pharma and digitization. 

Sri Lanka: Minister says India to extend support for UNHRC sessions
On 18 March, Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Admiral Jayanath Colombage confirmed that India would support the country at the UNHRC sessions that question Sri Lanka's violation of human rights during the civil war. He said, "Being the superpower they are, Sri Lanka greatly appreciates their position." He also asked the Sri Lankan journalists and intellectuals to support the country's sovereignty. 

Sri Lanka: Adani Ports gets approval to co-develop West Container Terminal
On 15 March, John Keells Holdings, a Sri Lankan conglomerate, announced that it would co-develop the West Container Terminal with the Indian logistics company Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Limited (APSEZ). The company received a Letter of Intent (LOI) from the Sri Lankan Ports Authority, approving it to build the 1400-meter quay length and 20-meter-deep port in Colombo. The port will be mutually beneficial to Sri Lanka and India. 

Pakistan: Imran Khan urges India to take the first step towards peace
On 17 March, Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke at the Islamabad Security Dialogue and pushed for India to take the first steps in normalizing the relationship between the two countries. He said: "We are trying, but India would have to take the first step and unless it does that we cannot move ahead." He also emphasized the importance for Pakistan to look into climate change, food security and economic prosperity, which had been neglected in the last few decades. 

Afghanistan: NATO to reassess and consult allies before deadline
On 16 March, the NATO Secretary-General said that organization would continue to assess and monitor the situation in Afghanistan and consult their allies before finally deciding on the deadline to withdraw its troops from the country. He emphasized the importance of participation by all regional powers and taking responsibility for maintaining peace in the country. He said, "We will assess, we will discuss and consult in NATO as we move close to 1 May deadline."

Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa This Week
Kyrgyzstan: President backs self-initiated constitutional changes 
On 15 March, the President was interviewed by Radio Free Europe where he backed the constitutional changes that he initiated in November 2020. While explaining the necessity to bring changes in the constitution due to failures of previous parliamentary and parliamentary-presidential systems, he said, "I think that this constitution will be a constitution that will bring the country forward. I believe this constitution will establish order in the country." The Human Rights Watch has opposed the changes and asked the government to stop the constitution's amendments. 

The UAE: Emiratis suspend Abu Dhabi summit after growing discontent with Netanyahu
On 17 March, the UAE cancelled a summit that was supposed to occur in Abu Dhabi in April with Israel after being irked by Netanyahu for using their bilateral relations as a key point for the re-elections. Netanyahu attempted to appeal to the Israeli population by claiming that UAE would make an assured investment of USD 10 billion. The UAE does not want to be a part of Netanyahu's election strategy and requested to postpone his visit and the summit until after the Israeli elections.  

Yemen: UN envoy warns Security Council of deterioration of the conflict
On 16 March, the UN envoy Martin Griffiths reported that the war in Yemen was back in the Marib region. He said: "fighting forces on both sides have suffered heavy losses in this unnecessary battle. I see shocking reports, as I am sure we all do, of children increasingly getting drawn into the war effort and deprived of their future." He urged the Security Council of the United Nations to revive the political process in the country and insisted that the parties involved must the work towards the resumption of political parties without any preconditions. 

Israel:  Kosovo announces opening its embassy to Jerusalem
On 14 March, the foreign ministry of Kosovo announced that it would open its embassy in Jerusalem. The decision to move the embassy comes after establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries in February 2021. Jerusalem continues to remain a disputed city, with numerous countries refusing to accept Israel's claims over East Jerusalem.  

Iran: Aviation agency releases report on crash of Ukrainian plane
On 17 March, Iran's civil aviation agency released a report on the shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger plane which led to the death of 176 people last year. However, since the report revealed no new details regarding the incident, the involved countries have expressed outcry, and the UN has voiced its concerns. 

South Sudan: UN seeks USD 1.7 billion to help more than 6 million people
On 16 March, the UN launched the South Sudan Humanitarian Response Plan, through which it aims to create a fund worth USD 1.7 billion. The fund will be used to help 6.6 million people with urgent life-saving assistance and protection in 2021. The UN is taking precautions and preparing for expected floods which caused food insecurities in the last two years. 

Ethiopia: The US to send an envoy to discuss the Tigray conflict 
On 18 March, the White House announced that Senator Christopher Coons would visit Ethiopia to meet with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and discuss the Tigray issue. Senator Coons will discuss the human rights violations in the region, greater instability in the Horn of Africa. They will consult the African Union on mutual interests of peace and prosperity in Africa. 

Tanzania: First woman President takes charge 
On 17 March, the vice-president of Tanzania announced the death of President John Magufuli, who was suspected of having contracted the coronavirus after being absent from public activities. On 19 March, the former vice-president, Samia Suluhu, from the autonomous region of Zanzibar, was sworn in as the first female President of the country and is set to finish Magufuli's term in his place until 2025. 

Europe and the Americas This Week
France: Government imposes one-month lockdown amid rising cases
On 18 March, France recorded 35,000 new cases of the new super contagious UK-variant of coronavirus. The Prime Minister announced at a press conference that the pandemic was getting worse, and the government must take all measures to ensure the situation remains controllable and manageable. The new lockdown will close barbers, clothing stores, furniture shops, but people will be allowed to move in a 10-kilometre radius. 

The US: Government threatens to impose sanctions on a Russian company
On 18 March, the US State Department said that new sanctions might be imposed on KVT-RUS, a Russian company that operates the pipe-laying vessel Fortuna and is involved in the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The US urged the company to abandon the German-Russian project and threatened to impose sanctions in case of disobedience. Antony Blinken, while describing Russia's pipeline project as a plan to divide Europe, said, "bad deal for Germany, for Ukraine, and for our Central and Eastern European allies and partners."

Bolivia: Interim President charged with corruption and human rights violation
On 14 March, the judicial system in Bolivia decided to back the prosecutors' accusations and placed former interim President Jeanine Anez, in four-month pre-trial detention. The Minister of Justice and Institutional Transparency said that she might also face additional charges for corruption and violation of human rights in the country. The ministry calls for a 30-year prison sentence. Anez tweeted that she was being charged for a coup that never took place as former President Morales had fled the country voluntarily. 

Paraguay: President survives impeachment 
On 17 March, Paraguay's Congress attempted to impeach President Mario Abdo Benitez after he took over his cabinet to appease the protestors who were unhappy with managing the pandemic and the lack of medical facilities. The ruling party blocked the move to impeach; 42 lawmakers voted against it, while 36 voted in favour of the impeachment charges. 

Brazil: Sudden spike in cases indicate failure of the health system  
On 17 March, Brazil reported 90,303 new cases of coronavirus infection and 2841 deaths in one day. This is the highest number of new cases recorded since the beginning of the pandemic and indicates a failing health care system in the country. On the same day, Datafolha published a survey that revealed that 54 per cent of Brazilians disapproved of President Bolsonaro's handling of the pandemic. 

About the authors
Harini Madhusudan is a PhD scholar; Avishka Ashok is a Research Assistant; Sukanya Bali and Abigail Fernandez are Project Associates at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. Dincy Adlakha is pursuing a Masters in International Studies at Christ (Deemed to be) University, Bangalore. 

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