The World this Week

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The World this Week
China announces National Security Laws on Hong Kong, US withdraws from the Open Skies Treaty and China's Two Sessions in Beijing

  GP Team

The World This Week # 68, 23 May 2020, Vol 2 No 21

N Jayaram, Harini Madhusudan & Rashmi B R

China announces National Security Laws on Hong Kong

What happened?
China has announced that it would impose national security laws on Hong Kong, criminalizing acts of secession, subversion and foreign interference, among other things. An announcement to this effect was made during the ongoing annual session of the National People's Congress. 

Under the proposed laws, Hong Kong would be expected to "establish an organization and enforcement mechanism to ensure national security". Should the local government fail to do so, Beijing may set up its own national security bureau to operate in Hong Kong. 

"This is the end of Hong Kong," said pro-democracy legislator Dennis Kwok, following Beijing's announcement. Hong Kong's Hang Seng index dropped by nearly 5.6 per cent in reaction on 22 May, and the global stock markets rocked too.

What is the background?
Article 23 of the Basic Law, the post-1997 mini-constitution of Hong Kong states that it "shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies."

In 2003, the Hong Kong government had sought to enact such legislation but confronted firm resistance from civil society. More than half a million people took to the streets on 1 July that year. Incidentally, parts of the world had just been emerging from the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic, and the government's move was seen as being that much more insensitive in view of the economic downturn Hong Kong had suffered. After one of the pro-establishment parties developed cold feet, the bill fell through. 

However, the demand for such laws never went away and had been aired by officials in Beijing and its supporters in Hong Kong over the years. 

When in 2019, the Hong Kong government sought to introduce an extradition law to facilitate the handover of fugitives to mainland China among other jurisdictions, massive protests broke outlasting several months until severe police action, and the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic led to demonstrators being barred from rallying. Unproven allegations of "foreign forces" stoking the protests fuelled renewed calls for national security legislation.

What does it mean?
Clearly, the authorities in Beijing have little patience to wait for what has, in fact, been an obedient government in Hong Kong to do their bidding. Moreover, the legislation would have had to be vetted by Hong Kong's Legislative Council, albeit one dominated by pro-Beijing members: It would have entailed a modicum of public discussion.

The move to bypass the local legislature and government through the promulgation of a law covering Hong Kong immediately sparked criticism from the pro-democracy camp and worldwide that it breached the principles of "one country, two systems", "a high degree of autonomy" and "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong" that had been promised in the years ahead of the 1997 handover of the former British-ruled territory to Chinese sovereignty. In fact, the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 covering Hong Kong's handover had envisaged that the territory would retain its way of life for 50 years until 2047. Beijing's latest demarche is yet another indication of its willingness to ride roughshod over international treaties.

The US  to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty: Yet another Trump-drawal.

What happened?
The US President Donald Trump announced on 22 May that the US will formally withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty in six months. Reiterating the intentions for the withdrawal, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, "We may, however, reconsider our withdrawal should Russia return to full compliance with the treaty" and limit its repeated violations of the treaty terms. Though the terms that amount to a violation remains unclear, this announcement comes at a time when multiple structures of arms control mechanisms have been collapsing.

What is the background?
First the Treaty in Brief. The Open Skies Treaty, signed in 1992 in Helsinki, came to effect in 2002 as a confidence-building measure among countries. The treaty under its conventional arms control architecture allows each of the 35 nations signatories to the treaty to conduct short-notice, unarmed, reconnaissance flights over the territories of another country and collect data on military forces and activities. The future of the Open Skies Treaty had been ambiguous since the fall of 2019 when the Trump administration began to hint that it was considering its withdrawal. The European side was well aware of the likeliness of such a decision since then.

Second, the US decision behind the withdrawal. In early April 2020, the US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seem to have agreed on taking the US out of the Open Skies Treaty, an understanding that they reached without convening the usual interagency process through the National Security Council or consulting others within the administration. Following this, a statement by Chris Ford, the assistant secretary of state for international security and non-proliferation, added that it could have been a combination of two particular reasons. The first was when Russia restricted flights over Kaliningrad and the second included restrictions on flying over Belarus. However, Ford stated that these cannot be seen as a violation of the treaty but as a contradiction to the confidence-building principle of the treaty. Russia denied the US allegations of the violations of the terms of the treaty and stated that the withdrawal would undermine global security.

Third, a general trend in the US walking out of global treaties. The US under Trump has been on a withdrawal streak from treaties, which include the Paris Agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Iran Nuclear Deal, the INF treaty, and now the Open Skies Treaty. In all likeliness, most of these treaties were intended for arms control with a focus to extend relations with Russia. Simultaneously, the US has so far not been able to bring Russia and China on board to discuss a trilateral initiative for the future of arms control when the START treaty expires in February 2021.

What does it mean?
First, in the age of satellite surveillance, a treaty like this clearly seems to have lost relevance. If carefully planned, the US withdrawal could open up new opportunities to bring newer control mechanisms in place. Holding on to the symbolic relevance of the treaty for the relations between the US, Canada, European Allies, and Russia, this move reflects a sense of short-sightedness on the side of the US. 

Second, the withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty would make it harder to get Russia and China on board for discussions on START, the last of the arms control mechanisms that are in place at the moment. The deadline set for the withdrawal is close to that of the US Presidential elections, it is unclear if the Congress would allow such a withdrawal before the next Presidential election.

Also, in the news…

Nepal publishes a new map showing Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limipiyhura as its own territory
Nepal released a new political and administrative map, depicting Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limipiyhura as part of the country. The first map to be released since the Treaty of Sugauli of 1816, it marks the rise of diplomatic and cartographic tiff between India and Nepal. The government of Nepal resorted to this step, in order to protect territorial sovereignty and oppose India's "unilateral actions" in Nepal.

Pakistan continues to support Taliban, says a Pentagon report
A quarterly report submitted by the US Department of Defence to the Congress, says that Pakistan continues to support Taliban and its associate terror-networks Pakistan is harbouring these networks and Taliban, who have the ability to launch attacks on the Afghanistan government. It seems like Islamabad wants to have a control over the intra-Afghanistan talks and push the situation in a manner that favours its larger objectives in the region.

Palestinian Authority breaks all agreements with Israel and the US
President of Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas declared that PA is "absolved" of all agreements and understandings between itself, US and Israel. This includes security agreements such as the Oslo Accords (1993), Hebron Agreement (1997) and Wye River Memorandum (1998). This declaration comes in the wake of Israel's plan to annex parts of West Bank.

Brazil becomes the second largest hotspot for COVID-19
With more than 330,000 cases, Brazil is now the second largest hotspot for COVID-19, after the US. WHO's emergencies director called Brazil as "a new epicentre" of the virus and expressed concerns over the rising cases in South America. President Bolsonaro has been refusing to budge, stating economic reasons. However, the rapid spread of the virus and the loss of lives would only contribute to Brazil's growing economic woes.

Germany and France propose a €500 billion EU Pandemic Recovery Fund
Germany and France proposed to set up a fund of €500 billion to support the hard-hit European economy. The fund would be an addition to the relief measures already declared by the EU. The amount will be raised through EU-backed bonds and disbursed in the forms of grants to the European regions and industries hit by the pandemic and will also be used to help build a greener economy. The proposal again proves the mettle of Franco-German leadership in the bloc.

UN-backed forces seize a major airbase in Libya
The forces loyal to the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) have captured al-Watiya airbase, south of Tripoli. The base was held by the Libyan National Army supporting commander Khalifa Haftar. Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj stated that "this victory does not constitute the end of the battle, but brings is closer than any time before to the bigger victory".

About Authors
N Jayaram is an independent journalist currently based in Bangalore. Harini Madhusudan and Rashmi B R are PhD Scholars with the Science Diplomacy Programme at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS. 

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