The World This Week

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The World This Week
Return of the Normandy Format on Ukraine and a Thaw in China-Australia diplomatic rhetoric

  GP Team

The World This Week #155, Vol. 4, No. 04

Padmashree Anandhan and Avishka Ashok 

The Normandy Format: Europe, Russia and Ukraine

What happened?
On 26 January, Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia representatives held talks under the Normandy Format at the Elysee Palace in Paris. After the talks, Adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Andriy Yermak, said: "The very fact that the Normandy format has resumed work is already a very positive signal… a kind of audit of the implementation of both the Minsk agreements and the agreements of the leaders of the Normandy format from 2019."

On the same day, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office Dmitry Kozak said: "We had a tough conversation, but maybe, the first straightforward conversation, in order to take inventory of all the problems connected to the implementation of the Minsk agreements."

What is the background?
First, failure of dialogues so far on Ukraine. To address the Ukraine crisis, a series of dialogues have taken place in January, including the following: US-Russia talks, NATO-Russia Council (NRC) meet, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) special plenary meeting and the recent Geneva talks held again between the US and Russia. All these discussions have failed to defuse the Ukraine crisis. 

Second, Europe, Russia and the Normandy format. France and Germany's renewed attempts to negotiate with Russia under the Normandy format show their tactical approach. It has not only given a place for Ukraine to represent its views but has allowed Russia to be the host of the meeting and listen to its demands without the intrusion of any other powers. Although Russia did not follow both Minsk agreements in real-time, the previous talks held in 2014 and 2015reduced the intensity of the conflict.

Third, the Minsk Protocol and Ukraine. The protocol aimed to achieve three key objectives: Establishing peace in eastern Ukraine; achieving Ukraine autonomy, and ceasefire and withdrawal of weapons. None of the objectives was achieved; the Donbas region is still under the occupation of the Russian separatists. The only significant difference since 2014 is the support of the NATO military, which has strengthened Ukraine to have a stronger defense against Russia.

Fourth, Russia's acceptance of the Normandy format. Moscow views it as a favouring set-up due to various factors. Until now, the talks held by various parties from the US, NATO, and OSCE show no promise to Russia's demands, the Normandy format serves as a better possibility to get what it wants and escape sanctions. Even if the talks fail to address the demands of Russia, it can go back to doing what it was doing before, similar to how it reacted to the Minsk agreements. It can use the Nord Stream 2 as a trump card with Germany, which is stifling in the energy crisis. It is a no-loss situation. 

What does this mean?
First, Europe is aware of Russia's stubborn stance on Ukraine, and Moscow never liking the West, especially the US. Therefore, letting the US be the prime mediator of the Ukraine crisis may be considered a bad option. For which Europe sees itself as an imminent player in de-escalating the tensions.

Second, Russia still opting for a diplomatic path to resolve the tensions with Ukraine shows the emphasis on diplomacy. It has made the US withdraw its military support from Ukraine and sees the talks with Europe as a scope to satisfy its demands.

China: New Ambassador to Australia encourages friendly bilateral relations 

What happened?
On 26 January, the former Chinese Ambassador to Indonesia and a veteran diplomat Xiao Qian undertook his new assignment as the Ambassador to Australia. In his initial remarks, Ambassador Xiao urged Australia to rectify its wrongful policies toward China and hoped for friendlier relations between the countries. 

He said: "A sound China-Australia relationship serves the fundamental interests of the two countries and two peoples. China and Australia differ in their history, culture, social systems and stages of development, but as long as we adopt a long-term and big-picture perspective, adhere to the principle of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit, and stay firm in the right direction of bilateral relations, the China-Australia relationship will keep moving forward and make further progress."

Senior federal government ministers in Australia dismissed the message by Xiao and are sceptic of China's sudden change in behaviour. Defence Minister Peter Dutton referred to China's turbulent relations with the Philippines, Vietnam, India and other countries and called it aggressive and unacceptable. Other Australian diplomats remain highly doubtful of China's intentions and have expressed caution against expecting major changes in China's policies towards Australia.

What is the background?
First, recent deterioration in relations between China and Australia. China's relations with Australia began deteriorating in 2018 when the latter became concerned regarding the Chinese influence on Australian politics, universities, media and other facets of the society. Australia's decision and encouragement to the Five Eyes Alliance against employing Huawei for their 5G networks, the push to investigate the COVID origins in China, increased tariffs and trade bans, passing of bills that harm the Chinese interests in Australia further pushed the two countries away. In the past few decades, China also changed its foreign policy strategies to become more aggressive in drawing its redlines and taking action against countries for intervening in its internal issues. 

Second, major bilateral issues. In the 21st century, the Chinese influence in Australia's trade posed a threat to the local products and markets in the country. Furthermore, China's increased tariffs on Australian barley, wine and coal greatly affected the country's trade relations. China also gained political support by funding development and infrastructural projects in the Pacific Island countries. In 2021, China initiated projects to develop the Kiribati island, thereby allowing the country to establish its military presence in the region. Taiwan is another issue that continues to tear the two countries apart. Australia has always extended its support to Taiwan and supported the US presence in the Taiwan strait, triggering harsh reactions from China. 

Third, Australia building alliances after the fallout. The two countries have been unable to mend ties post their fall out because Australia considered the trade war as a wake-up call and decided to expand its relations with other countries in the Indo-Pacific. It also gave more importance to institutions such as the Five Eyes Alliance and Quad which are anti-China in its strategies. Australia also focused on improving its bilateral relations with other countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, India and more to make up for the lost trade opportunities after the fallout. 

What does it mean?
Although, China has issued numerous warnings to the Pacific country, the statement made by Ambassador Xiao seems mellow and reflects a readiness within China to mend the sour relations with Australia. However, Australia continues to remain uncertain about China's intentions as they do not foresee a change in Chinese policies at least until the elections in 2022. 

Also, in the news...
By Ashwin Dhanabalan, Angkuran Dey and Meghna Manoj

East and Southeast Asia This Week
China: White Paper on Beijing's space program 
On 28 January, China released a White Paper titled "China's Space Program: A 2022 Perspective.". This is the fifth issue on China's space programme and it offers a better understanding of Beijing's progress and plans in the sector. As reported by Global Times: "China plans to launch the Wentian and Mengtian experimental modules, the Xuntian space station telescope, Shenzhou manned spacecraft and Tianzhou cargo spacecraft in the next five years." The paper also mentions that China's space station would be completed by 2022 and it would be pursuing new milestones in deep space exploration.

China: President Xi chairs virtual summit with Central Asian countries 
On 25 January, Chinese President Xi Jinping held a virtual summit with the Central Asian countries, "to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations." Xi pledged USD 500 million in assistance to the region and to enhance trade between the countries. He also agreed to: "import more quality goods and agricultural products from countries in the region…strive to increase the trade between the two sides to $70 billion by 2030." Xi also spoke about the instability in Kazakhstan and reaffirmed China's support to the government to maintain stability and stop the violence. 

China: Ambassador Zhang Jun raises concerns about Afghanistan in the UNSC
On 26 January, China's Permanent Representative to the United Nations Zhang Jun requested to increase humanitarian and economic assistance to Afghanistan in the Security Council meeting. The Chinese Ambassador commented: "After the hasty withdrawal of foreign troops last August, the Afghan economy has been in free fall and the Afghan population is experiencing a humanitarian crisis of the worst kind." He urged the international community to cancel the sanctions on Kabul and release the assets frozen by the US and the Western countries. Concerning the sanctions, he stated: "Unilateral sanctions are no less lethal than military intervention."

China: UNHCR in talks with Beijing to visit the Xinjiang region 
On 28 January, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) Michelle Bachelet stated that they are engaged in talks with China about visiting the Xinjiang region. This comes at a point when the West had launched a diplomatic boycott against the upcoming Winter Olympics. A South China Morning Post report mentioned that the visit has been scheduled to take place after the end of the Winter Olympics, which has been scheduled between 4 and 20 February. UNHCR Spokesperson Rupert Colville, while addressing a UN briefing, said: "the parameters of that visit are still very much under discussion."

North Korea: Pyongyang tests upgraded long-range cruise missile
On 28 January, North Korea confirmed testing an upgraded version of the long-range cruise missile and a warhead of a tactical guided missile. Although the test was held to verify the power of its conventional warhead for a surface-to-surface tactical guided missile, the tests triggered a push for new sanctions by the US and received international condemnation. North Korean President Kim Jong Un visited an ammunition factory and said: "The factory holds a very important position and duty in modernising the country's armed forces and realising the national defence development strategy." However, North Korea has defended its missile testing as a sovereign right to self-defence. 

Thailand: Oil spill in the Gulf 
On 25 January, a leak from a pipeline owned by Star Petroleum Refining Plc is suspected to have released about 50,000 litres of oil into the Gulf of Thailand. The oil reached the shores of Rayong province on 28 January. Oil dispersants have lessened the spill's effects, but it could still impact the nearby Khao Laem Ya National Park, home to exotic coral reefs and sea life. The government has filed an official complaint against the company seeking compensation for the damages caused. 

Myanmar: Woodside to exit 
On 27 January, after Total and Chevron pulled out of Myanmar, Australia's Woodside Petroleum had announced to exit the country at the cost of USD 209 million. The company's Chief Executive Meg O'Neill said: "Given the ongoing situation in Myanmar, we can no longer contemplate Woodside's participation in the development of the A-6 gas resources, nor other future activities in-country." The company followed suit with Human Rights Groups mounting pressure on Multinational Companies to stop doing business with the military government.

Myanmar: Human Rights Watch on one year since the military coup
On 28 January, Human Rights Watch group released a report titled, "Myanmar: Year of Brutality in Coup's Wake." The report mentioned cutting off the funding to the military government by stopping the imports of oil, gas, and other extractives from Myanmar. The report also talked about the leadership of Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and how, under his watch, security forces have: "carried out mass killings, torture, sexual violence, arbitrary arrests, and other abuses against protesters, journalists, lawyers, health workers, and political opposition members amounting to crimes against humanity." In addition, the report highlighted the numerous war crimes that took place in the country's Southeast and Northwest regions. 

South Asia This Week
India: BrahMos cruise missile deal signed with the Philippines
On 28 January, the Indian Director General of BrahMos Aerospace Pvt. Ltd. Atul Dinkar Rane signed the deal with Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin N Lorenzana on the supersonic cruise missile. The virtual ceremony marked the first export of the Indian and Russian joint venture and the deal was signed at a value of USD 375 million. The Philippine Marines will acquire three batteries of the Brahmos cruise missile, training for operators, and the necessary integrated logistics support package. 

India: Prime Minister hosts the India-Central Asia summit 
On 27 January, Prime Minister Modi at the virtual summit addressed the lack of land connectivity between India and Central Asia. This was the first summit that involved the President's of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. PM Modi also discussed the shared concerns "…about the developments in Afghanistan…In this context, our mutual cooperation has become even more important for regional security and stability." The India-Central Asia summit marked 30 years of diplomatic relations between India and Central Asia. 

Afghanistan: UN's special conference 
On 26 January, the UN convened a special conference to assess the situation of Afghanistan. Secretary-General's Special Representative for Afghanistan Deborah Lyons said: "It is in no one's interest to see a collapse of the current state in Afghanistan." Lyons further shared concerns about the restriction of girls to attend schools and the recent disappearances of Afghan women activists. The Afghan mission at the United Nations released a statement saying: "The de facto authorities have not been recognized by the international community as they fail to fulfil their commitments including forming an inclusive and accountable government to provide essential services to the Afghan people and respecting rights of women and girls and other minorities."

Afghanistan: Joint statement by the US and Europe on the Oslo talks
On 27 January, after the talks in Oslo, Norway, the US and Europe released a ten-point statement. The statement mentioned human rights violations, the need for a strong and inclusive representative system, and the need for the Islamic Emirate to maintain peace and stability in the region. It also stated how the meetings in Norway were not legitimising or recognizing the government in power. The statement cited: "Reaffirmed our expectation that the Taliban will uphold their commitments on counterterrorism and drug trafficking."

Sri Lanka: Amends the anti-terror law
On 28 January, the government of Sri Lanka announced its decision to amend an anti-terror law that gives the police sweeping powers to arrest suspects involved in terrorism without a trial. However, Sri Lanka was influenced to make the amendment as it had received increasing pressure from the EU and UN Human Rights Council(UNHRC) over concerns of human right violations. The amendment now makes it compulsory for magistrates to visit the place of detention to ensure due protocol is being followed and the suspect is protected from degrading treatment. The move comes before the UNHRC March 2022 session, where Sri Lanka's rights and progress accountability will be reviewed by the committee.

Central Asia, Middle East and Africa This Week
Saudi Arabia: Bangkok reaffirms its ties with Riyadh
On 25 January, Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha landed in Riyadh as a part of his official visit to the country. He met with the Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman and talked about investment opportunities in their respective countries. The diplomatic interaction came after a 30-year long dip in Riyadh-Bangkok relations following the blue diamond affair. The Thai Premier commented: "I believe there will be an increase of exchanges and visits, to compensate for the last 30 years when we didn't have a chance to interact". 

Iran: Qatari FM Sheikh Mohammed in Tehran 
On 27 January, Qatari Foreign Minister  met with his Iranian counterpart  in Tehran. However, speculations have emerged saying the meeting has more significance as it could set up direct talks with the US. The Iranian news agency IRNA stated: "Although Doha and Tehran are experiencing good and close relations, this visit ... has fuelled some misconceptions. Some are fabricating it to facilitate direct talks with the United States." Qatar's ruling Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani will be meeting the US President Joe Biden on 31 January in Washington. 

Yemen: Probe announced on the prison attack
On 27 January, the Saudi-led coalition announced an investigation into the deadly prison attack that happened on 21 January in Yemen. The attack on the detention centre killed at least 70 people, and the air raid wounded about 200 others. The coalition's Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT) set up said it had: "commitment to professionalism, transparency, impartiality and credibility,' concerning the investigation. The team further said they have been investigating the incident since it broke out, and relevant groups have begun procedures for collecting data and information about the attacks. 

Armenia: President Sarkisian announces his resignation 
On 23 January, Armenian President Armen Sarkisian submitted his resignation as he was undermined in the policymaking process during the country's current national crisis. Sarkisian stated: "The President does not have the necessary tools to influence the fundamental processes of domestic and foreign policy in the current difficult period for the country and the nation". The leader claimed that he was kept out of major discussions to end the war with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. He also made clear his resentment with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan when the latter fired the military leaders in the middle of anti-government protests. 

Burkina Faso: ECOWAS suspends Ouagadougou’s membership 
On 28 January, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) suspended Burkina Faso's membership after it had witnessed a military coup on 24 January. This follows the suspension of Mali and Guinea, and sanctions being placed on them by the bloc. But, unlike Mali and Guinea, no sanctions have yet been placed on Burkina Faso. The Ghanian President, Akufo-Addo who is also the acting Chairman of ECOWAS stated: "The happenings in the region tell us that nobody has accepted democracy as the preferred mode of governance." 

Rwanda: Kigali and Kampala reopen borders after three years
On 28 January, Rwanda announced that it would open up its main border of Gatuna-Katuna with its East African neighbour Uganda from 31 January. As of now, only the two smaller border posts at Cyanika and Kagitumba are being used for transporting goods. The meeting between Lieutenant General, Muhoozi Kainerugaba with the Rwandan President Paul Kagame seemed to have diffused the tensions as of now. This meeting comes following the sacking of the Ugandan Military Intelligence Head, Major General Abel Kandiho on 25 January, who had been accused by Rwanda to have been working with its dissidents.    

Report on Hunger Hotspots by the WFP-FAO
On 26 January, the World Food Programme (WFP) and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) released a report called the "Hunger Hotspots" that stated: "where parts of the population are likely to face a significant deterioration of acute food insecurity in the coming months that will put their lives and livelihoods at risk." Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Yemen were the countries recognized with the most severe concern. As a result, parts of their population could face significant deterioration of food security, and a targeted humanitarian action plan was needed to save lives and livelihoods. The report also provided a country-specific recommendation on: "emergency response and anticipatory action to address existing humanitarian needs and ensure short-term protective interventions before new needs materialize."

Sudan: Protests against the UN in Khartoum 
On 26 January, pro-military protestors took to the streets of Khartoum and demanded the expulsion of the UN from Sudan. A protestor said: "We don't want external intervention in our country." The UN intervened in the region to resolve the political crisis that surfaced in the country after the military coup in October 2021. Thousands of angry protestors demonstrated outside the office of UNITAMS on 26 January as the UN launched talks with the Sudanese factions. UNITAMS director of political affairs Stephanie Khoury said: "Our role at this stage of consultations for a political process for #Sudan is to hear Sudanese stakeholders; ensure we actively listen to their views, document their visions & suggestions."

Europe and the Americas This Week 
EU accuses China of illegal trade practises with Lithuania
On 27 January, the EU launched an official dispute on behalf of Lithuania with the World Trade Organisation(WTO). The EU accused China of boycotting Lithuanian goods, but Beijing refuted the allegations. European Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis said: "For the time being, we have not found a negotiated solution. That's why we are now exercising our WTO rights." China has denied all allegations and stated that it rejected goods due to customs issues. Since the case has been taken to the WTO, they will positively respond, but its intervention would impact regional trade. 

Belarus: Lukashenko to back Russia in case of Ukraine invasion
On 28 January, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko declared his support for Russia if the situation escalates into a military conflict. He cited that he would have thousands of Russian soldiers move into his country in the face of an attack against Moscow or Minsk. The President commented: "If there is an aggression against Belarus, there will be hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers. Who, together with hundreds of thousands of Belorussians, will defend this land". However, the statement comes after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov commented that the Kremlin would not be interested in a war.

Ukraine: Western countries advise families of embassy staff to withdraw
On 24 January, the US, UK, Australia, and Germany informed and advised the families of diplomatic staff to leave Kyiv as the situation at the Ukrainian border turned tense. Several other countries also announced caution against travelling to Ukraine due to the mounting tensions as Russia increases its buildup on the border with Kyiv. The UK also took measures even though its diplomatic staff were not in immediate threat and called back about half of the team working in Kyiv. 

Ukraine: Russia-Ukraine tensions to cause high inflation for an extended period
On 25 January, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released a statement that the escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine would lead to higher inflation levels. IMF's Deputy Managing Director Gita Gopinath said the situation was different from the Crimean annexation, which saw a fall in energy prices and a low demand for shale gas. However, Gopinath mentioned that: "if this conflict were to happen, you would see an increase in energy prices." 

Finland: Helsinki expedites order of its F-35 stealth fighters from the US
On 27 January, the Finnish government requested the US government to expedite their order of 64 F-35s as tensions over Ukraine have threatened the country. Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said: "Geographically, Finland is a big country. We need a fleet of aircraft that guarantees security in all our airspace. We are going to upgrade old US fighters that we had, and this decision was made before the recent escalation with Russia." In December 2021, the Finnish government concluded its contract with the US defence company Lockheed Martin. 

Germany: Navy Chief hands in resignation after controversial remarks on Russia, Ukraine
On 23 January, the German Navy Chief Vice-Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach handed in his resignation after his comments at a session organised by the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA). The German Navy Chief stated: "Does Russia really want a small and tiny strip of Ukraine soil to integrate in their country? No, this is nonsense. Putin is probably putting pressure because he can do it and he splits EU opinion." This comment comes at a time when the Russia-Ukraine border tensions have escalated and the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz is trying to play a critical role in de-escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine.    

US: Biden announces small deployment in Eastern Europe 
On 29 January, US President Joe Biden announced that the US would maintain pressure on Russia by deploying a small regiment of troops in Eastern Europe. His comments contrast with the Pentagon's decisions as they backed a renewed push for diplomacy. Biden said he would only send a small regiment of troops and "not too many," Washington already has tens of thousands of troops stationed across Western Europe. But, he took the decision now as even the Pentagon said that Russia currently had stationed enough troops and equipment to threaten the whole of Ukraine. 

US: America Competes Act of 2022 passed by the house of Representatives 
On 26 January, a 2,912-page bill was passed by the House of Representatives to boost US' competition with China. The bill focuses on investing billions of dollars to develop the US semiconductor industry and provide new provisions for stronger US-Taiwan bilateral ties. The US has earmarked USD 100 million to counter Chinese government censorship and disinformation. In addition, a new special envoy will be created under the purview of the bill at the US State Department to coordinate its response to the violations and human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region of China. The bill also approves the change in the name of Taiwan's de facto embassy in Washington, from Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office to Taiwan Representative Office in the United States.

Argentina: Buenos Aires strikes a deal with IMF 
On 28 January, Argentina was able to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for refinancing its debt which amounted to more than USD 40 billion. Argentinian President Alberto Fernández on national television stated: "We had an unpayable debt that left us without a present or a future, and now we have a reasonable agreement that will allow us to grow and comply". This deal comes after a series of tense negotiations with the IMF regarding refinancing the debt contracted in 2018, during the currency crisis. The IMF in a statement said that they have come to an "understanding" about the key policies that would be underpinning the final deal.  

About the Authors
Avishka Ashok is a Research Associate at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Padmashree Anandhan and Ashwin Dhanabalan are Research Assistants at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Angkuran Dey, and Meghna Manoj are Postgraduate scholars at the Center for South Asian Studies at Pondicherry University. 

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