The World this Week

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The World this Week
Closure of Chengdu and Houston Consulates, COVID Recovery Fund in Europe, expanding Space race to Mars, and the Nuclear Security Index 2020

  GP Team

The World This Week # 77, 25 July 2020, Vol 2 No 30

Shreya Upadhyay, Sourina Bej, Harini Madhusudan, Sukanya Bali, and Rashmi Ramesh. 

Closing the Chinese Consulate in Houston and the American Consulate in Chengdu

What happened? 

In a Cold War-style diplomatic fight, the US ordered China to close its consulate in Houston, Texas this week accusing it of engaging "in massive illegal spying and influence operations". 

In retaliation, Beijing ordered the closure of the US consulate in Chengdu in southwestern China. 

What is the background? 

First, the number of Chinese and American consulates in the two countries, respectively. There are five Chinese consulates in the US, besides the embassy in Washington DC, and an office at the UN in New York. It has still not been made clear as to why the consulate in Houston was singled out. Nonetheless, the Trump administration has threatened to close more Chinese consulates in the US. 

The US currently has diplomatic missions in six cities on the Chinese mainland, including Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, Wuhan, and Beijing. The Chengdu consulate in the past has been under scrutiny; it was included on a top-secret map leaked by intelligence analyst Edward Snowden showing US surveillance worldwide.

Second, the tit for tat retaliations marks a new low in the ongoing tensions between the US and China. The US and China have engaged in a trade war for more than two years now. Even as the truce was declared in Jan 2020, with the signing of 'Phase 1' trade deal, most of the tariffs were not eased. 

Subsequently, the US administration has been challenging Chinese assertions in the South China Sea. Besides, China has been accused by successive US governments of stealing American technology. The recent Chinese imposition of a controversial new security law on Hong Kong has met criticism from the Trump administration. The US government's views on issues of Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang have also ruffled feathers in Beijing. 

Third, strong claims and accusations have been exchanged on both sides relating to the coronavirus pandemic: Trump and his officials have called it a Wuhan virus, China virus, and Kung flu, while Chinese foreign ministry endorsed a conspiracy theory linking the US army to Coronavirus. The US Justice Department this week accused China of attempting to steal information about American research on Covid-19 vaccine. The Chinese government has on its part accused the US of repeatedly setting "restrictions against Chinese diplomats, opening diplomatic bags from China without permission and seizing China's articles intended for official use".

What does it mean? 

The closure of consulates by the US and China means an escalation in the bilateral tensions. Many view the US' dramatic move of shutting down a consulate and evicting diplomats as an unprecedented move that will serve as the most significant test to the bilateral ties since the establishment of diplomatic relations. This skews the few remaining dramatic channels between the two sides and might be difficult to reverse. 

However, Chinese response, while retaliatory, is still measured till now. Closing Chengdu instead of a higher profile US mission indicates that Beijing was trying to avoid derailing ties completely. The response allows the US to assess whether further straining ties with China in an economic downturn is advisable. Notably, closure of consulates would affect diaspora as well as impact mutual economic and trade exchanges on both sides.  

COVID recovery in Europe: The EU agrees to a historical deal with €750billion    

What happened? 

In one of its longest summits that stretched for over four days and lasted for 90 hours, the EU leaders on 21 July agreed to the long-awaited recovery plan to jointly borrow €750 billion. This is meant to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, which killed 1,35,000 people across Europe and dented their economies. 

The EU's recovery fund, to be composed of €390 billion in grants and €360 billion in loans, will be attached to a newly agreed €1.074 trillion seven-year budget and the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) thereby bringing the total financial package to €1.82 trillion. The bloc had previously attempted to agree on a recovery fund. However, it remained short of collective consensus over the nature and the number of grants to be given to each affected country. 

What is the background? 

First, the recovery fund aims to reset the euro-scepticism. Never before has the bloc agreed on an amount that is roughly two trillion dollars, but in saving the economy, the leaders have also aimed to save the political idea that is the European Union. The idea of regionalism has been shocked by the BREXIT, fading trans-Atlantic partnership, and lack of collective response to China. As the pandemic hit, this euro-scepticism was at its pinnacle, and the deal came to ease the falling stock markets, arrest the economic crisis and reset the euro-scepticism. 

Second, collective borrowing and debt sharing by the EU. The recovery fund will be supported through borrowing from the market, and the regional organization is committed to sharing the debt together. While the EU countries have borrowed jointly on financial markets at a small scale in the past, including in response to the eurozone debt crisis in 2010 but this time the bloc has come together to borrow in large amounts. The question of how it is going to be paid back is important and risk-prone. Of the total, €360 billion is to be paid back individually by the states, and the remaining €390 billion will be collectively repaid by the EU.

Third, the historic moment off charting through distinct fault lines and a rare Franco-German partnership. The recovery fund comes after overcoming two major divides. The disagreements between the Northern and the southern countries over the extent of the loans had brought the talks to the edge of collapse on 19 July. In addition, the Frugal Four (Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden) had strongly opposed the idea of taking on debt to issue recovery grants. These divides were evaded after the portion of grants was reduced in favour of loans, and big concessions were agreed in the form of rebates that will cap the overall contributions to the EU budget. The working partnership between Macron and Merkel was a rare sight when the personal diplomacy between the two leaders surpassed the subtle competition for leadership within the bloc that worked in favour of the recovery fund. 

What does it mean? 

First, the plan is a symbolic demonstration of solidarity in response to the pandemic and economic shock. It redeems the EU institutions and marks the coming together of the national leaders for the regional reckoning of liberalism. At the sight of the virus contagion, the values of the open borders and cross border movement were deeply dented when panicked governments unilaterally shut borders and banned exports. The recovery fund plan is definitely a course of action ahead, but it still requires the member countries to ratify it. Furthermore, the possibility of countries like Poland and Hungary resisting the economic reforms that come with any EU grants and loans still remains. 

Second, Europe sends a strong lesson in ways to contain the virus and also the role of a regional organization in coming together to save the day. Unlike any other regional organization in the world, the need to come together has evolved from the grassroots, and the European leaders responded to save the economy that is so deeply intertwined. Even though the importance of the nation-state, individualism, authoritarianism never left Europe and is deeply entrenched in the political discourse, in times of crisis the region has lessons for regionalism from the Concert of Europe to the EU. 

The race for Mars: UAE and China launch their deep space missions

What happened? 

On 19 July, the UAE launched its indigenously developed spacecraft called Hope from a base in Japan, destined to be the first interplanetary mission from the Arab world. The Mars mission of the UAE is aimed at understanding the atmosphere and the weather patterns of the planet. 

On 25 July, China launched Tianwen-1, with a lander, orbiter and rover, its first attempt to land on Mars. 

The third mission to Mars is said to be next week, a six-wheeled rover named Perseverance, to be launched by the US. The three missions to Mars, this year, mark the significance of deep- space exploration and the increase in the number of players involved in space. 

What is the background?

First, the "Race to Mars":  There have been 56 missions to Mars, and of them, 26 missions have been successful, and 12 attempts were made to land on its surface, 8 of them were successful. The race to Mars is referred to the competition between national space programmes, manufacturers and corporate players.  

Second, Mars is the nearest planet that can be reached after the moon: an outcome of the post- cold war interest in space, Mars offers evidence of rocks that preserve evidence of organics, the possibility of the past existence of life forms, the chemical building blocks of life. Since 1996, with the data from four orbiters and four, landed missions, the view of Mars as being an Earth-like world with a complex geologic history, has been proven. Naturally, the early bird gets the tastiest worm.

After the near-earth regions have been thoroughly utilized, space programmes have shown interest in exploring the lengths of the Solar system. Among the missions to mars this year, two are aimed at surface exploration, and one is aimed at studying the atmosphere and weather patterns. 

What does it mean?

Though all the three missions have their own goals, deep space exploration seems to be the next area of contestation for countries. The space as a domain has expanded, and the costs of planning a mission have become less expensive. The national prestige of having a successful mission, the promise of long-term gains leads these missions while displaying the political-economic interests of the nations investing in them. 

Global Nuclear Security progress has slowed

What happened?

On 23 July, the US Nuclear Threats Initiative (NTI) released its fifth annual Index on country-level progress on nuclear security. The Index also recommends action plans for the State to protect nuclear material and strengthen nuclear security. 

The report states that the overall rate of improvement in protecting nuclear material and facilities have declined since 2018. This raises threat with increasing terrorist capabilities, growing cyber peril, geopolitical tensions and the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Australia is ranked first, for its security practices for the fifth time among countries with weapons-usable nuclear materials and for the third time in the sabotage ranking. The report also highlights Pakistan as the "most improved country" after its overall score increased by seven points and ranked 19.  

What is the background?

First, the NTI index and its parameters. The NTI Index includes two theft rankings and one sabotage ranking. The ranking on secure materials, looks at 22 countries with 1kg or more of weapons-usable nuclear material, based on actions related to securing material against theft. 

Besides, 153 countries and Taiwan, with less than 1kg or- no weapons-usable material, are ranked to assess efforts towards global nuclear security. 

Next is on the sabotage; 46 countries and Taiwan are ranked with their nuclear power and research reactors, to assess actions taken to protect them against sabotage. 

Second, in 2020, a radioactive source security assessment has been included in the report: This assessed the national policies, commitment, and actions to secure the radioactive sources in 175 countries and Taiwan. The Index has been released biennially since 2012. 

Third is the shift compared to 2018 assessmentsAs compared to 2018, twelve countries have shown no change, while countries like Egypt, France, Hungary, and Israel have shown negative changes. Pakistan and Bulgaria have risen above five while Jordan and UAE were not applicable in this year's Index. 

What does it mean?

If one has to go by the Index, there is a slowdown in the global progress in protecting nuclear facilities and materials from theft and sabotage, which is worrisome for the nuclear security environment. 


Mike Pompeo's speech marks a departure in Sino-US relations
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's speech on China heralds a new chapter in the US-China relations. Speaking at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, he severely criticized the Chinese Communist Party, China's economic policies and the country's 'aggressive' rise. The place he stood and delivered his speech is historic and symbolic. It was Richard Nixon who, through Kissinger, gave an olive branch to communist China in the 1970s. Pompeo has unfurled a possible massive rejig in the Sino-US bilateral relations, where the underlying philosophy would be 'distrust and verify', unlike Ronald Reagan's 'trust and verify' policy. 

Putin appoints a new governor in the Far Eastern region; protests continue
Khabarovsk, a far eastern Russian city, is witnessing massive protests and rallies in support of the detained former governor Sergei Furgal. He was arrested on murder charges that he and his supporters deny, and in turn, they allege Kremlin of harbouring vendetta. Though Putin appointed a new governor this week, the protests continue and are seen as a symbol of anti-authoritarian, anti-Putin, anti-Kremlin feelings, and another incidence demanding federalism. 

Public protests against Netanyahu for failure to handle the pandemic
Israelis protest against Netanyahu for his apparent failure in containing the spread of COVID-19. Initially seen as a country that successfully managed to curb the pandemic, the second wave has exposed the weaknesses of the government and its healthcare system. Protesters blocked streets, surrounded the official residence and demanded his resignation. The protesters accuse Netanyahu of clinging to clinging to power undemocratically, even though he failed during the crisis hour. 

Maritime route connecting India's Northeast and Bangladesh inaugurated
A landmark connectivity route between India and Bangladesh, linking Agartala in the Northeast with the Chittagong port in Bangladesh was inaugurated. The route will ensure more effortless connectivity to the North East, as it reduces the distance between Kolkata and the seven states by half. The goods from Chittagong port will reach Agartala by land route and from there diversify to different points. 

The UK report on Russian interference
The Russia report by the UK parliament's intelligence and security committee was published after an apparent nine-month delay. The report was expected to assess the impact of Russian interference in the 2016 EU referendum. The report states that there have been links between the Russian Elite and the UK politics and claims that they have proof of Russian involvement in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, but has failed to provide evidence of Russian interference in democratic processes. The report calls Russian interference a 'new normal.'


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