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China’s balancing act / walking a tightrope

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In a quickly-changing international environment, China has had some intense last weeks. The winter Olympics held in Beijing were closured on 20 February, and the invasion of Ukraine started on 24 February. China now has both an opportunity and a threat for its role as a superpower. Beijing seeks three goals simultaneously: a strategic partnership with Russia, a commitment to longstanding foreign policy principles of territorial integrity and non-interference, and a desire to minimise collateral damage from EU and US sanctions. But China cannot reconcile these three conflicting goals and will either have to ditch one or the other, or uncomfortably change its position under international scrutiny. This situation has encouraged the international community to closely monitor China’s reactions to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, one of its main allies. This brief will analyse the upsides and downsides of this world crisis for China and how the country could navigate the following weeks.

China has benefited from Ukraine’s invasion in four ways: China’s new role as international mediator, US diverting its attention out of the Asia-Pacific theatre, Russia’s dependency, and for internal propaganda. Beijing maintains the balance between its camaraderie with Putin and the fear of sanctions for its economy if it supports an invasion condemned by most countries in the world. China is in a unique position: it has endorsed Russia’s “legitimate security concerns”, due to NATO’s enlargement to the east, but even the head of EU diplomacy, Josep Borrell, acknowledged that China was the best actor to act as mediator. In fact, the Chinese MFA has stated that China was “ready” to take a role in the Ukrainian crisis and act as a mediator to end the war, and that China had already interceded and “provided some advice,” Wang said, citing the conversation between Putin and Xi the day after the invasion began, in which the Chinese President expressed his desire to promote peace talks.

The conflict moreover diverts the attention of the United States and key European powers from the Indo-Pacific region. From a geopolitical perspective, this temporal distraction gives Beijing more of a free hand to deal with its concerns in the region. In addition, China’s influence over Russia has been increased thanks to the invasion: Russia is highly constrained by international sanctions and it is now more dependent than ever on Chinese economic support to lessen the impact of Western sanctions. Moreover, China could offer Russia the use of its CIPS interbank payment system to bypass the SWIFT blockade. Despite these close ties, it is key to remark that trade between Russia and China only makes up to 2% trade volume, while the EU and the US have much larger shares.

Despite these advantages for China, they don’t imply that China would necessarily be happy to support any risky military moves made my Moscow. A final advantage for Beijing is that this war has been portrayed by Chinese state media as yet another example of the West’s failings, portraying the United States and NATO as refusing to respect the sovereign right of other countries, such as China and Russia, to defend their territories. In sum, it has been used as a chance to weaken America’s soft power, tarnish the credibility and appeal of liberal institutions, and discredit the open media inside China.

However, China’s role in the world is being damaged in two ways: economic disruptions and increase in tensions with Taiwan. China’s economy will be directly affected by the war because of grain supplies and the risk to its infrastructure projects in Ukraine. Until 2014, Russia was Kiev’s main and undisputed trading partner. However, the Government decided to abandon its economic dependence on a country with which it had major diplomatic problems. Then came China, which is currently the country to which Ukraine exports the most products. The war could disrupt grain security in the country: China bought more than 8 million tons of barley product from Ukraine in 2021, more than 30% of its total imports, making it an important partner for its supply. In fact, on 6 March President Xi Jinping said that China had to rely on its domestic market for grain security considering the current disruptions. Other products that China imports from Ukraine are iron, and sunflower and corn.

Apart from this grain-supply disruption, the biggest Chinese bet in the war-affected area is not the purchase of its products, but its powerful investment in infrastructure. Xi Jinping’s idea is to create a route that connects Beijing with Madrid in a land route, China with Russia (passing through Afghanistan) and, from Moscow, with Western Europe, passing through Belarus and Poland. However, Ukraine has joined the project at the last minute with a very important role in this project. China’s idea is to strongly reinforce Ukraine’s infrastructure to serve as a parallel route and to be able to reinforce shipments. In this sense, in 2018 China spent 7,000 million dollars on projects of this type in Ukraine, in particular in various expansions and construction of ports in the Black Sea. Three years later, the Ukrainian route has become an equal or more important bet than the Polish one and both governments have intensified their commercial relations. In 2021, the Zelensky government signed an infrastructure agreement by which both executives would actively collaborate on various projects throughout the country. At the signing of this agreement, the Ukrainian President promised that Kiev would be “the bridge to Europe”. For his part, Xi Jinping himself stated that China “supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine”, a statement that the Chinese foreign minister repeated exactly right when the Russian invasion began. The war and the destruction of infrastructures would be a risk for China’s intercontinental project and would mean the loss or the postponement of this lucrative project. Apart from the direct impact on the grain supply and Chinese infrastructure projects, China would also be indirectly affected by the war in the economic sense. An escalation of conflict, whether it is in Ukraine, in North Korea or anywhere else would affect China’s plans for economic growth. China’s economy, already harmed by the government’s zero-tolerance covid policy, could be affected by the war to a certain extent. In 2022 President Xi Jinping will seek a third leadership term, so he has to make sure that his management of the economy is good enough to have legitimacy and be re-elected. A final disadvantage of this war for China are the constant parallelisms with Taiwan made by media and analysts. The war unleashed by Russia has raised concerns in Taiwan, where there have been public displays of support for Ukraine such as “Ukraine Now, Later Taiwan”. Even if a hypothetical long-term military operation is not ruled out, an assault in the near future seems unfeasible. Moreover, a conflict in the Taiwan Strait would have a greater effect on the world’s economy than that of Ukraine, given the great manufacturing and logistics importance of the area, including Taiwan’s great power in semiconductors, keys to the production of automobiles, and computer and electronic equipment. Moreover, China is more exposed internationally than Russia and the reaction of antagonism and nervousness among its neighbours would be stronger. Despite this, Beijing has been building a financial and commercial world parallel to the one led by the United States, which would cushion Western sanctions and make their exports more irreplaceable for the world than those of the Russians. China will adjust and re-adjust its approach towards Russia in the following weeks. For now, Beijing is willing to play “a constructive role” in promoting an agreement to end the war in Ukraine while ensuring that its economy is affected as little as possible.

Will Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine Spell War for an Already Unstable Balkans?

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent shockwaves through Europe and the rest of the world, no more so than in the Balkans, where a slight action can spark ethnic and political war. The region maintains close ties with the U.S. and Europe, and is aligning their judgement on the situation accordingly, condemning Russia, and supporting Ukraine. However, Russia’s influence stretches far and its ally, Serbia, is not participating in sanctions even after condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions.

Serbia is the largest country in the Balkans and holds significant power over the region. That power is now being tested as Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić balances Serbia’s loyalties to Russia with Serbia’s ambition to join the European Union. When Kosovo announced its independence from Serbia in 2008, Putin stood by Serbia in denouncing Kosovo and not recognising the country as a sovereign state. Serbia has also been buying military equipment from Russia including tanks, helicopters, and missiles to counter the arms being sold to Croatia by the U.S., making Serbia a well-equipped Russian ally. What Serbia does with those weapons will decide the fate of the region.

Bosnia and Herzegovina are also at a crucial juncture, the tripartite government is close to falling apart, with pro-Serbian and pro-Russian Republika Srpska president Milorad Dodik sowing the seeds for a fallout of the likes of 1991. The Bosnian Croat arm of the tripartite government has too joined in, albeit on a much less war provoking level, demanding greater representation in national institutions by changing an election law, or they will start the process of forming their own region in Bosnia. If Bosnia breaks apart again it will leave the Muslim Bosnians at the mercy of Croat Bosnians and their ally Croatia, and Serb Bosnians and their ally Serbia. With that much ethnic tension, and Croatia and Serbia being armed by the most powerful nations in the world, we could see a return to the Bosnian war but with much scarier consequences for Europe.

Russia has also provoked Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia by claiming that these countries have been sending mercenaries, sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause, to fight against the separatist rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk region before the conflict broke out and then also to Ukraine during the invasion. These countries denied the accusations, but Putin could spin this in such a way as claiming aggression against Russians in Ukraine. If Putin finds any evidence of foreign troops helping Ukraine against Russia, especially those in the Balkans, it could have massive consequences for the region economically.

Every one of the countries in this region remembers what it was like to have war in Europe, the destruction of their families and homes. Anti-Russian sentiment is at an all-time high everywhere, but the Balkans remains as polarised as ever. Although there is a much greater proportion of people supporting Ukraine, and all but Serbia have implemented sanctions against Russia, there are still those who think the NATO expansion towards Russia is a violation and protests have also been seen that promote Putin and Russia.

These sanctions against Russia will put the Balkan nations in a very difficult situation because of Eastern Europe’s reliance on Russian gas, oil, and food exports. Prices were already high in the Balkans but now it is nearly impossible for people, with some of the lowest average wages in Europe, to afford their necessities. Although currently people are sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause, it will not be long for people to start reeling about their own situations. In these cases, blame will become commonplace, and many will compare their lives with Russian oil and gas against their lives without. Blame will be pointed towards the western countries and then will turn to political struggles and with ethnic tensions already high, it will not be long before the potential for a further escalation in the region to return.

There are already factors in place that could transpire to start another war, like the one we saw in 1991. Serbia is stuck between siding with Russia and its own desires in Europe and it will not be long before Serbia’s loyalties are tested. Bosnia is already struggling to keep itself together, with the invasion of Ukraine and pro/anti-Russia sentiment spreading, it will not be long before the politicians reveal which side they are on and how they will help their own ethnic group. Time will tell how hard the sanctions will affect the Balkans, but as prices of essential supplies skyrocket, so will tensions in one of the most tumultuous regions in Europe, one with a storied history of violence and one that the rest of the world must look to stabilise before it’s too late.

What Does the Future Look Like for Pedro Castillo’s Government?

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Prime Minister of Peru Héctor Valer Pinto resigned on 5 February, after it emerged that police complaints had been lodged against him in 2016 for domestic violence. He denies having assaulted his wife and child. With Valer’s resignation, President Pedro Castillo’s administration has now seen the departure of three prime ministers within six months.

It is just the latest issue facing Castillo since he won the presidency in July 2021, symptomatic of wider problems. So far in his tenure, Castillo’s administration appears to be paralysed. He does not say or do much, and has not attempted to implement any significant policy changes. Castillo is an inexperienced politician, an almost completely unknown former teacher before his surprise election last summer. Castillo has been plagued by various accusations of corruption that he claims are part of a right-wing plot against him. There was an attempt by Congress to impeach Castillo in December, which he survived since votes fell short of the number required.  He faces problems both with the right who are trying to impeach him, and with the left who are dissatisfied with his cabinet appointments. In spite of appearances that the odds are stacked against Castillo remaining president much longer, according to the Financial Times, analysts predict the most likely short-term outcome is stalemate. The opposition in Congress still likely lacks the necessary votes for impeachment.

The uncertainty around the government’s future appears unlikely to have a large effect on Peru’s economy. The Peruvian sol fluctuated in response to Castillo’s cabinet reshuffles the past few months, but not significantly. Precedent shows that Peru’s economy has remained stable even in periods of political crises. Since 2017, there have been repeated impeachment motions filed against successive presidents. In 2020, the country had three presidents in five days. Yet throughout, Peru’s economy has remained relatively stable. This economic stability masks the social problems around unequal wealth distribution, that Castillo was elected for promising to change. As indicators of this, in 2020, informal employment in Peru was around 68%. Just under 48% of the population faced moderate or severe food insecurity (13% higher than Argentina, 23% higher than Brazil). Certain regions are disproportionately affected, with child malnutrition peaking at 33.4% in remote rural areas in the Sierra and Amazon regions where indigenous populations reside.

One such social problem Castillo had pledged to address is the conflict around mining projects, and the inequality around who these bring greatest economic benefit to. The government does not appear to be well equipped to handle this issue. Mining protests have increased since Castillo came to office, according to the non-profit Observatory of Mining Conflicts. Reuters claim that Castillo’s election has emboldened Andean communities in Chumbivilcas province, since he had promised to distribute profits from the mining sector more fairly. Communities in the area have blocked access roads to Las Bambas mine in protests on multiple occasions, and mine operator MMG said it would have to halt production again by 20 February if an agreement is not reached. Copper output has dipped at Las Bambas, which is responsible for 2% of the world’s copper. Other mines in Peru such as Constancia, Antapaccay and Antamina have also seen protests. If these conflicts are not resolved, there is a risk of higher prices or shortages of these resources.  

Is violence against women hampering Albania’s accession to the European Union?

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Already in the first month of 2022 Albania has lost two women to violent crimes. This trend is not abnormal for the Balkan country whose population is an even 50-50 split between men and women. Last year a woman was killed on average every three weeks with thousands more reporting assaults, stalking and other forms of abusive behaviour to the police. In 2020, 12 cases of domestic violence were reported every day, but the police only prosecuted 13% of the cases, and no data is available for how many were convicted.

A recent UN survey revealed that a third of Albanian women feel unsafe in their own homes because of the presence of domestic violence. 53% said they had experienced some form of domestic violence and 80% suggested that domestic violence has increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2021, Albania saw a 13% increase in murders, with almost a third of those murders being perpetrated by their partner, ex-partner, or a family member. In most cases, victims had already been granted protection from the police, such as taking out restraining orders against the offender.

Albania’s patriarchal society maintains strict gender roles, forcing many women to be dependent on their husbands or fathers. Property is traditionally registered and inherited through husbands or their family’s name, and social infractions are policed by an honour-and-shame system where men are allowed to ‘deal’ with their women’s behaviour.

In a UN report from 2019, more than half of Albanian women believed that they should tolerate some violence to keep their family together. This along with fear means that a huge number of violent cases against women go unreported.

Albania first applied to join the EU in April 2009, then in 2014 Albania was granted candidate status. The EU gave Albania various pre-conditions that, if met, would allow for the talks to start for the accession to the EU.  These pre-conditions include reforms for the justice system, opening trials for corrupt judges and the respect of human rights.

The EU Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs released a study relating to violence against women in which it states that every country in the EU must follow a provided framework for preventing femicide. Included in this is the ‘Due Diligence Principle’, in Article 5 of the Convention, in which an obligation is placed on State Parties to organise their response to all forms of violence covered in the Convention. The European Court of Human Rights must see that the State establishes a positive obligation to protect the right to life. The positive obligation requires the State to do due diligence in protecting an individual whose life is at risk. Failure to do so incurs State responsibility.

If the state had any prior knowledge of a woman’s exposure to violence, it is the State’s obligation to employ preventative measures to ensure the right to life.

Already in one month of 2022 we have seen two women killed by men. If the trend stays the same, then by December the lives of 22 more women will be lost taking the total to 24. In the previous year there were 20 female murders but with 12 cases of domestic violence a day the potential for that number to increase is huge. This, along with the fact that Albania has a dwindling birth rate and high emigration levels means that Albania must find a way to protect women or the country will continue to struggle both domestically and internationally.

Between 2010-2019, more than 193,000 Albanian’s applied for asylum in the EU. The reasons are many but key among them are better employment opportunities, including opportunities for women, as well as increased security for women. Unemployment plays a big factor in emigration from Albania and with men being the primary earners we can see that it correlates with domestic violence.

If Albania is to successfully join the EU, the government must address these problems. It must provide better legislation to the safety of women. This can be done by reforming a society where men control a woman’s life, money, and shelter. The government must provide greater employment opportunities for women so that the reliance of women on men is lessened and women can have greater independence. Policing of domestic violence must be improved and this comes with the ability to trust the police will enforce preventative measures when complaints and restraining orders have been made.

Albania seems closer than ever to joining the European Union and yet half of its population cannot live without the overarching control of male influences. It cannot guarantee the protection of women and girls and it cannot provide an adequate platform from which violence can be avoided. All of which must be addressed before becoming a member of the EU.

North Korea: Craving Attention

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Following Kim Jong Un’s 10th anniversary in power, the North Korean regime has stepped up its missile game with 7 missile tests in January 2022, the biggest show of strength since 2017. UN resolutions prohibit North Korea, which is largely politically isolated, from testing such missiles, which, depending on their design, can also carry a nuclear warhead. In fact, the missiles that have been used in January prove that North Korea has been capable of improving its missile technology. The regime has been sanctioned over the years and its economy has been moreover significantly affected by the self-isolation of the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. While some analysts see these exercises as part of the North Korean military’s winter exercises, there are three other explanations for this trend.

The main explanation is that North Korea wants to stay as a relevant actor in the international arena. With these tests the regime aims at projecting an image of self-sufficient country, capable of developing advanced technology and a relevant actor that can force changes in the regional and international balance of power. In 2022 there will be important events in the region, including the Beijing winter Olympics in February and the presidential elections in South Korea in March. If the conservative candidate Yoon Suk Yeol won the elections in South Korea, he would be expected to take a harder line against the North Korean regime, probably meaning a maximum disregard for the very fact of the existence of another Korean state. Kim Jon Un’s absence of an announcement on North Korea’s foreign policy direction in 2022 has been interpreted as a way of having “strategic flexibility” amid these uncertainties. Internationally, the fact that the US is paying more attention to the crisis in Ukraine or China-Taiwan relations is felt by the regime as a disdain. As a response, North Korea has fired an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM), which would be able to strike the US territory of Guam in the Pacific Ocean. These tests could harm Biden’s foreign policy reputation, already damaged by US missteps in Afghanistan and the threat posed by Russia in Europe.

A second explanation is that North Korea seeks US concessions. The missiles are a rejection of US sanctions on the country and a rejection of Biden’s proposal on diplomatic talks, which have been seen as insufficient. In 2021 Kim rejected US offers to negotiate on denuclearisation, talks that have been stalled since Kim-Trump’s summit in Hanoi in 2019, arguing that the US had a “hostile” attitude towards NK. North Korea would like the US to lift economic sanctions, withdraw US troops in South Korea and suspend South Korea-US military drills in the area. The strategic flexibility that the regime is following in 2022 allows them to recalibrate North Korea’s strategy to exert pressure on the US. At the moment, exerting maximum pressure is seen as the only way of pushing the US to make concessions and start negotiations again. This is because the North Korean regime does not consider itself in a weak position vis-à-vis the White House. First of all, Kim Jong-un believes that he can achieve no greater gains through negotiation than showing his operational nuclear deterrent. Second, his regime has gambled that his ballistic tests alone will not be capable of triggering an American intervention.

However, it is not clear that Pyongyang is adequately managing the risk of accidental escalation. The hypothesis of a US attack in response to a missile launch cannot be totally excluded, since Joe Biden must give guarantees to his Asian allies. This scenario would have serious consequences, especially in a tense context between the US administration and China, North Korea’s main supporter. Ultimately, the behaviour of the Americans raises questions about their ability to propose a readable road map for the Korean peninsula. The organisation of a negotiation that establishes both the technical parameters of an agreement on North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic programs and the first steps towards a return to regional stability (a condition for the “freezing of the dangerous situation” to lead to a long-term solution), seems unattainable at this point. Not only is the US administration incapable of orchestrating Biden’s strategy (if he has one like his predecessor), but the US’s geopolitical weakness accentuates its regional allies’ loss of confidence in expanded deterrence. Under these conditions, there is a real risk that North Korean launches will generate a dynamic of regional nuclear proliferation.

Finally, a third explanation is that, beyond a show of force against President Joe Biden and his allies – first of all, South Korea – these missile launches appear to be a means of diverting the North Korean population’s attention from the growing internal difficulties and, specifically, food shortages. The country’s pre-pandemic scenario was already extremely delicate, with 40% of its population – around 10.5 million people – suffering from malnutrition and 70% of the country depending on food aid, according to a United Nations report. Now, with the huge increase in food shortages caused by the lack of Chinese imports the condition of North Korean citizens is increasingly precarious. From the government they state that the food crisis is mostly due to the economic and commercial sanctions imposed by the United States and the United Nations and due to the natural disasters that impact the country every year (floods, typhons); added to the severe health and financial crisis that has hit the world since 2020. Based on this explanation, the north Korean regime wouldn’t be so interested in starting denuclearisation negotiations again, but rather in continuing with its military build-up for itsfive-year plan to develop its defence technology and military system and for reinforcing Kim’s legitimacy in front of the NK people.

Regardless of which explanation is more accurate, the fact is that analysts firmly believe that north Korea will probably continue undertaking missile tests and holding military parades. The regime wants to remain a popular international actor and to have US attention amid escalating tensions in other parts of the globe. Moreover, it is the right time for Kim to increase his internal popularity.