The World this Week

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The World this Week
The Abraham Accords in the Middle East, a new PM in Japan, and a TikTok deal in the US

  GP Team

The World This Week # 85, 19 September 2020, Vol 2, No 38

Lakshmi V Menon, Harini Madhusudan & Parikshith Pradeep

The Middle East: After UAE, Bahrain agrees to normalize relations with Israel, as the three sign the Abraham Accords in the US.
What happened?
On 15 September, the state of Israel, United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain signed a US-brokered normalization agreement. At the event, hosted by US President Donald Trump in the White House, the three - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani and Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan signed what is referred as "the Abraham Accords".

The New York Times quoted Trump saying, "after decades of division and conflict, we mark the dawn of a new Middle East." According to the NYT report: "The texts of the agreements detail how the three countries will open embassies and establish other new diplomatic and economic ties, including tourism, technology and energy. Israel and the Emirates are beginning commercial air travel between their countries for the first time, and Bahrain has opened its airspace for those flights."

Meanwhile, Palestinians condemned the signing of accords as 'a sad day'.

What is the background?
First, the changing perception about Israel in the Arab World. On 14 August, Israel and the United Arab Emirates established formal diplomatic relations through a US-brokered arrangement; becoming the third Arab nation and the first GCC country to establish ties with Israel. The UAE-Israel normalization set a precedent, as Bahrain followed. A section believes Saudi Arabia, though silent, tacitly approves the Abraham Accords. Other Arab countries are expected to follow, for example, Oman. 
Second, Israel's normalization interests. It is not only the Arab states but also Israel, especially Netanyahu looking forward to establishing ties with the Arab World. While some blame it on Netanyahu's adventurism, it also reveals a plausible larger Israeli understanding that resolution of issues and establishment of ties with the Arab states is crucial to the addressing of the Palestinian issue. 
Third, the American push. The Abraham accords constitute a major part of the Trump-Jared strategy towards the Middle East. Trump has been pushing for what he calls it as the "deal of the century". For Trump, a deal in the Middle East is also a personal push.

What does this mean?
For the Americans, it means a significant foreign policy success. Ahead of the upcoming elections, the Abraham Accords promises political mileage for Donald Trump. The latter perhaps even thinks he deserves a Nobel peace prize!. It also sends a global diplomatic message that the US' power in the region of the Middle East should not be doubted. 
For the Palestinians, it is 'a sad day' indeed. The accords end the collective regional arrangement for peace – the exchange of normalization with Arab states for Palestinian statehood. The deal is a distinct departure from the traditional understanding of Arab-Israeli peace. For Israel, it means strengthening and solidifying its position in the Middle East and establishing itself as an unquestionable regional power. 
For Netanyahu, it means garnering domestic political mileage to recapture complete control over Israel's Prime Minister-ship. 

Japan: Yoshihide Suga is the Prime Minister. But, there are old challenges he will have to address first.
What happened?
On 16 September, the LDP members elected Yoshihide Suga as the successor of Shinzo Abe at the emergency presidential vote called by the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) after beating Shigeru Ishiba and Fumio Kishida. 

After taking office, Suga announced on his official Twitter handle a determination to tear down bureaucratic sectionalism, vested interests and the notorious habit of following precedents while promising to advance regulatory reforms and give birth to a cabinet that works for the people. He has highlighted that the top priority would be the management of COVID and Tokyo Olympics.

What is the background?
First, the change of leadership at a crucial point of Japan's economy: Japan during the recent years, had been facing economic near-stagnation, deflation, and debt, to which Shinzo Abe had introduced a series of fiscal policies and measures to improve employment and economic growth. These policies, popularly called the Abenomics, have failed to garner the growth that was expected, despite being structurally sound. The burden of quick economic outputs would be on the new leadership at a time when consumption, international trade, and other forms of economic activity have declined, and Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, along with Japan have begun to show signs of recession. Suga's priority would be to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and make a decision on the Tokyo Olympics. 
Second, heightened tensions with the regional countries: Japan, during the recent period, has witnessed a turbulent relationship with North Korea, South Korea, and Russia in the immediate neighbourhood. The relations with South Korea specifically has soured in the past months that would stand as a challenge to the new leadership. Suga has vowed to uphold the interests of Abe's aggressive and successful diplomacy. 
Third, Abe's legacy, especially his global network with leaders of the other countries: Abe in the past years, has placed Japan in a comfortable position in world politics. Highlights being the Quad, and Abe's role in mediation between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump. Japan is seen as a pillar of liberal democracy in the world, and the style of diplomacy that the new leadership takes would help to maintain it. Suga, known for his ruthless nature, lacks the personal friendships with world leaders that Shinzo Abe possessed. His diplomacy skills are untested.
Fourth, the change in leadership comes at a time when the US-China rivalry is at its peak: 
One of the major concerns for Japan would be to manage the US-China rivalry. Considering the facts that the US is Japan's only security ally, and China is its largest trade partner, Suga's immediate diplomatic challenge would include skillfully managing Japan's relations with the US keeping the American presidential election in November in mind, and with China amid ongoing conflicts over trade and territorial issues. The ability to balance these relations would be a test of the new leadership's firm and reliable political instincts. 
Fifth, Suga as an experienced and a tough leader. As the longest-serving chief cabinet secretary, Suga is seen as a leader who rose to power with no significant political skills but holds a reputation for discipline, toughness, understanding the machinery of Japan's bureaucracy and intimidating his political opponents or the press. One of his first tasks would be to gain public confidence with the management of the COVID crisis and economic recovery; considering how Shinzo Abe's approval rating had fallen by 30 per cent for the same reasons. 

What does it mean?
Yoshihide Suga does not have the luxury of time that Shizo Abe had with Abenomics. Quick wins over grand visions would be at the core of the new leadership. In this aspect, Suga can not just be seen as a replacement that would not deviate from the policies of Shinzo Abe. 
The new term has also ignited faction-based politics within the LDP, which would place an additional burden on the leadership to prove their abilities and prove quickly. The sense of urgency and the lack of his own power base within the party could become shortcomings of Suga; however, his record as the tough, and loyal member of Shinzo Abe's cabinet would garner him the support needed to complete his term. 

TikTok: After months of uncertainty, there is a deal on the US horizon. Trump has given his "blessings". For now.
What happened?
On 19 September, Trump gave his blessings to a concept deal on the use of the in the US. He was quoted to have saying: "I have given the deal my blessing, if they get it done that's OK too, if they don't that's fine too." According to a WSJ note, President Trump said agreed "in concept to a deal" under which the "Chinese-owned video-sharing app TikTok will partner with the Oracle in the US." The New York Times quoted the President: "It'll be a brand-new company…It will have nothing to do with any outside land, any outside country."
According to the WSJ report, it would become a US-based company, "capping negotiations that have stirred debate over national security and the future of the internet." The report also quoted the Chief of Oracle: "We are a hundred percent confident in our ability to deliver a highly secure environment to TikTok and ensure data privacy to TikTok's American users, and users throughout the world." 
Earlier, on 18 September, the US Commerce Department released a press note placing 'prohibitions on transactions' on the Chinese video app 'TikTok' in the wake of an executive order released this August. The presidential executive order exclusively mentions the threat to 'national security, foreign policy, and the economy of the United States,' posed by the Chinese owned companies. It alleges 'data collection' by these companies and the perceived threat of the 'Chinese Communist Party's' access to personal information of US users. In response to this, China has accused the US of "bullying' and 'political manipulation." Ironically, the Chinese foreign ministry held that the move went "against the principles of the market economy."

What is the background?
First, the security debate over the TikTok. The app grabbed attention after an American economic think tank released a report in November 2019, highlighting TikTok's popularity amongst US Armed Forces and its adverse effect on national security. The report flagged threats from facial recognition, location sharing and undeniable data access to the Chinese government, citing China's Internet legislations. Following which the US Armed Forces employees and the Pentagon employees were barred from using TikTok. Legislative actions and representative advocacy pushed for investigations. Sen. Hawley called out Tiktok for a congressional testification, for which the Beijing based business failed to show up. 
Second, corporate interests. The company in its efforts to portray distance from the Chinese placed an American CEO, who later resigned after a very short tenure. While the app can still be functional post its ban, it can only do so till 12 November without updates. On the business side, Trump's security concerns are being worked out by US giants such as Oracle and Walmart. The corporate objective has been shaped, keeping in main data security, storing user data in the US and national security interests.

What does it mean?
First, Tiktok's functional openness and operations surpassing borders are valid, but national security necessitates a healthy compromise in the wake of data privacy. Considering Beijing's geopolitical assertiveness, the dominance of Chinese technology on a global level upholds Trump's stance and concerns. The app's large user base in the US, with 50 million users daily hint at better prospects for Trump.
Second, China's technological dominance is vital to its status quo, something it would rather build upon. Beijing could lower its tone on this issue, but its past actions indicate rarity in doing so. Temporary stooping is a tactic one could learn from the Chinese.
Third, data security has become central to electoral politics as an issue that has roped in urban minds. An element of inclusivity is in play, for countries like India that has banned several Chinese apps, and gained major support. Trump's move in the wake of allegations against Chinese companies after India, could be a strong front runner.
Fourth, the strain in techno-corporate and political relations could sow seeds to restructure service sectors that play a major role in the value chain. In corollary, what was once a virtual space for the digital world now has borders and occasional ceasefires. 

Also in the news
by Akriti Sharma, Lokendra Sharma, Rashmi Ramesh, and Harini Madhusudan

Southeast and East Asia This Week 
Taiwan: Senior US official visits rise tensions in the region
On 17 September, the US Under Secretary of State made a visit to Taiwan which marks the second visit by a high-level US official in two months. He attended the memorial service for former President Lee Teng-hui, who led the island's transition to democracy and died at age 97 in July. According to a US State Department release, "The United States honors President Lee's legacy by continuing our strong bonds with Taiwan and its vibrant democracy through shared political and economic values." The visit has prompted a strict warning and threat of retaliation from China. (See the following) note.

China flies warplanes near Taiwan
On 19 September, a fleet of 19 Chinese military aircrafts flew into Taiwan’s airspace in a pincer formation for a second consecutive day. Previously, on  18 September, the Chinese military sent 18 warplanes including fighter jets across the Taiwan Straits into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, in an unusual show of strength which coincide with the visit of the US Under Secretary to Taiwan. The Taiwanese military responded by scrambling their jets, issuing radio warnings, and mobilising air defence assets. 

Singapore: A new base for China's tech giants
Chinese tech giants Alibaba, Tencent, and ByteDance are shifting their base of operations to Singapore with an eye on the Southeast Asian market. This comes in the wake of the setback to the Chinese companies in the Indian and American markets. Singapore has emerged as a promising hub as it provides a gateway to the 650 million-plus population of ASEAN countries; also, it happens to be a stable alternative to the protests-rocked Hong Kong.  

Cambodia: Chinese company executing a BRI project sanctioned by the US
The US has sanctioned a Chinese real estate developer who is involved in the construction of the Dara Sakor complex on the Cambodian coast. It is a BRI project that comprises a port, resort, and an airport, among others. The US has alleged that not only this project has adversely affected the local populace and the environment, but that it could also potentially house Chinese military assets. Cambodia and China have criticized the US move and denied any military aspect. 

Myanmar: 32 years after the 18 September 1988 military coup 
On 18 September, 32 years back, across Myanmar pro-democracy protestors swarmed the streets, only to witness the military taking over. There had been protests since August 1988; it all started on 8 August 1988 (hence referred to as the 8888 uprising), as a student protests movement in Yangon, then referred as Rangoon. The 8888 uprising came to an end on 18 September, when the military staged a coup and formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). The uprising, coup and the following events in the 1990s witnessed the emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi.

South Asia This Week
India and China: Tensions and rhetoric runs unabated
During the week, tensions on the ground and rhetoric at the political level continue to plague India and China's bilateral relations. According to India, ten patrolling points along the LAC between Depsang Valley and Pangong Tso have been blocked by the PLA. 
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh stated in the Parliament that China has violated the 1993 and 1996 boundary agreements, and has amassed troops along the LAC since April-May. The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded by saying that the onus of disengagement and ensuring peace solely lies upon India. The statements at the political level signal no change even after talks between the defence and foreign ministers of India and China in Moscow. 

India: Zalmay Khalilzad meets the NSA and Minister of External Affairs
On 15 September, the US Special Envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad held talks with NSA Ajit Doval and Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar in New Delhi over intra-Afghan talks. Khalilzad reiterated the US perspective and stance on the Afghan peace process and appreciated India's presence at Doha. The future steps in the negotiations and US-India cooperation in the process were the highlights of the discussions.

The Maldives: Fear of Chinese debt trap 
Mohammad Nasheed, Speaker of the Maldivian Parliament, expressed his concerns regarding the mounting debts of the country. The previous regime led by former President Abdullah Yameen borrowed from China on a large scale and depended on the China-sponsored infrastructural projects. The debt now amounting to approximately $1.1 to 1.4 billion is certainly a burden for Maldives whose GDP is around $4.9 billion. The fear of falling into the debt trap similar to Sri Lanka is evident, particularly when the economy is severely affected due to the pandemic.

India and ASEAN: Reviewing the Free Trade Agreement  
On 18 September, Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal informed the Parliament that India is in talks with ASEAN to determine the scope for review of the Free Trade Agreement. This was decided during the India-ASEAN Economic Ministers Consultations held on 29 August. Additionally, India has imposed new custom rules to check the flow of Chinese goods into India through the ten ASEAN countries. The timing of the FTA revision signals at the aim of scrutinizing Chinese products entering the country.

Europe and the Americas This Week
Belarus and the western borders
On 17 September 2020, adding to the six weeks of ongoing protests, Alexander Lukashenko, announced that he is closing the borders with Lithuania and Poland and putting the troops at the borders on high alert. On 18 September, more than 800 soldiers from Russian and Belarusian military held joint drills five kilometres away from the Belarus- Poland border.

Europe: European Commission President says, "Migration is a European challenge, and all of Europe must do its part."
On 16 September, the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, pledged that the European Union would drive a sustainable and transformational recovery that will give Europe a global platform to lead economically, environmentally and geopolitically. What stands out is the announcement of a new pact on migration, where the President states: "Migration is a European challenge and all of Europe must do its part."

Massive wildfires in Siberia
Last week, wildfires in Siberia had been emitting record levels of Carbon dioxide. The fires were triggered due to carbon-rich 'permafrost'- frozen soil, burning at low temperatures beneath the earth's surface during winters and flaring up on the land surface during the extremely dry summers; causing sinking of the land and formation of small lakes. 

Hurricane Sally hits the North Coast
On 16 September, Sally, a category two hurricane hit the North Coast with powerful waves, winds, and rains, killing four people. Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi have been declared states of emergency. Over, fifty thousand people are known to be surviving without electricity. The smoke from the wildfires across the region has made the hurricane wetter, slow-paced and more dangerous; resulting in heavy rains and flooding.

The US: RIP Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
On 18 September, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, known as the architect of the legal fight for women's rights in the 1970s, passed away. Ginsburg was seen as the most prominent member of the Supreme Court after having served 27 years as its member. "My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed," are known to be the last words Ginsburg wrote to her granddaughter. Her death is likely to set in motion a nasty and tumultuous political battle over who will succeed her at the Supreme Court vacancy. On 19 September, Trump has made an announcement, that he would appoint a woman judge to replace Justice Ginsburg.

About the authors

Lakshmi V Menon is a Research Consultant at NIAS. Harini Madhusudan is a PhD Scholar at the NIAS and Parikshith Pradeep is an independent analyst. 

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