Rashmi Sacher

Biden’s ‘Buy America’ policy affects US trade ties, Beijing hints at the possibility of new Cold War
Asia Pacific Focus

Biden’s ‘Buy America’ policy affects US trade ties, Beijing hints at the possibility of new Cold War

On Monday, US president Joe Biden signed a new executive order to focus on enhancing the US manufacturing and industrial sector. The Democratic president signed the executive order to promote the country’s long-standing ‘buy America’ policy. Biden used it to eliminate legal loopholes that limit the federal agencies in providing a favorable push to “Made in America” products. Biden’s order stands in line with his predecessor Donald Trump’s ‘America first’ policy.

While emphasizing about the existing ‘Buy American Act of 1933’, Biden said that the new order would make federal agencies to prioritize buying goods produced on US soil, but “these preferences have not always been implemented consistently or effectively”.

An official from the Biden administration said, “The dollars the federal government spends… are a powerful tool to support American workers and manufacturers. Contracting alone accounts for nearly $600 billion in federal spending.”

“I don’t buy for one second that the vitality of American manufacturing is a thing of the past,” Biden told reporters before signing the order. “American manufacturing was the arsenal of democracy in World War II and it must be part of the engine of American prosperity now.” But Biden’s vision for American domestic industry sparked conflict with one of its biggest trade rival, China.

Chinese Premier Xi Jinping called out against Biden’s protectionist policies and warned against the emergence of a new ‘cold war’, if the trend continues. Speaking at the World Economic Forum event, Xi said that nations should adopt a multilateral approach to combat the ongoing economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, instead of promoting reverse globalization, and favoring “decoupling and seclusion”.

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Though Xi avoided directly mentioning US or Biden’s executive order his words made it clear that his nation would not adhere to the dictates of the new administration in Washington. “To build small circles or start a new cold war, to reject, threaten or intimidate others, to wilfully impose decoupling, supply disruption or sanctions, and to create isolation or estrangement will only push the world into division and even confrontation” Xi said.

Xi added, “No global problem can be solved by any one country alone. There must be global action, global response, and global cooperation.” Besides, the Chinese President proposed the creation of an open world economy, which would “uphold the multilateral trading regime, discard discriminatory and exclusionary standards, rules and systems, and takedown barriers to trade, investment, and technological exchanges.”

The Chinese leader also condemned the bully behavior employed by one nation to take advantage of others, hinting at US formidable purchasing power. He said, “State-to-state relations should be coordinated and regulated through proper institutions and rules. The strong should not bully the weak. Decisions should not be made by simply showing off strong muscles or waving a big fist”.

EU-China agreement invites criticism for its hasty giveaway and overlooking Beijing’s human rights record
Asia Pacific Focus

EU-China agreement invites criticism for its hasty giveaway and overlooking Beijing’s human rights record

Members of European Parliament MEPs criticized the EU-China Comprehensive Investment Agreement (CIA) and the hurried manner in which it got formalized. Many slammed German chancellor, Angela Merkel, for her determination to secure the deal, overlooking not only Beijing’s questionable human rights record but also risking the EU’s ties with Washington. The agreement was seen by US and UK officials as nothing less than a geopolitical blunder. The Union pressed for the deal to be finalized by the end of 2020.

The report, presenting the complete analysis of the agreement, called it the worst negotiated deal as it provided the EU with the minimum additional market access along with “next to no means” to force Chinese authorities for the eradication of forced labor. The report published by the Institut Montaigne highlighted that the European Commission oversold the deal, mainly due to persistent pressure from Merkel. 

The report’s author François Godement said that the agreement could spur tensions between the bloc and US over its differences with regard to China’s human rights situation. Washington strongly slammed Beijing’s treatment of its Muslim minority community, Uyghur. On Tuesday, the newly appointed secretary of state, Antony Blinken, told the Senate that US needed to toughen its stand against China as the communist nation was committing genocide in Xinjiang province. His statement hinted at US adoption of tough trade approach towards Beijing.

Europe still has some hope, as MEPs hold the right to ratify the agreement but it would take about a year’s time to do so. European Parliament, which is currently reviewing the agreement, would be passing a motion next week condemning the way the agreement was processed hurriedly, reducing the EU’s support towards global human rights.

With regard to the motion, Godement said that the EU would “regret the fact that the decision for a political conclusion of the comprehensive agreement on investment (CAI) has not reflected the European parliament’s requests in previous resolutions on Hong Kong for using investment negotiations as a leverage tool aiming at preserving Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, as well as its basic rights and freedoms”.

Godement objected to the deal on the basis that it permitted China “to build on Europe’s claims to have advanced its values while escaping enforcement and remedies on the issues that are at the heart of current public debates: environment and labor”.

He added: “Given China’s track record, it is impossible to rely on goodwill to implement commitments and unwise to believe that on key issues, a top-down political process between both parties can be substituted to legal arbitration… On WTO-plus issues, the deal fails to put a secure mechanism of implementation in place”.

German foreign ministry defends Thai King’s visa-free stay in Bavaria
Asia Pacific Focus

German foreign ministry defends Thai King’s visa-free stay in Bavaria

Despite objections raised by the German parliament over the visa-free stay of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn, for months at stretch during the initial lockdown, the country’s foreign ministry said that he didn’t require a visa. For the past few years, Thailand’s monarch, along with his entourage, has been frequently visiting the country to stay in the southwestern state of Bavaria.

With regard to his frequent trips to the European nation, German government raised two key issues. One surrounding the nature of the Thai King’s visa and other if he was conducting the state affairs for his nation from Germany, which the German law prohibits.

In January, the ministry wrote a letter addressed to Wolfgang Schaeuble, president of the Bundestag, offering clarification over the matter. The foreign ministry stated that the Thai monarch did not need a visa when entering the country, and hence the German authorities could not control his visits or duration of his stay. Though its not clear if the Thai monarch was controlling his state from Germany or not.

In the letter, the ministry added that King Vajiralongkorn needed a visa till he was a crown prince but not after he became the head of state.

Reports claim that Thai King was living in Bavaria until October, and returned back to his kingdom to commemorate the fourth anniversary of his father’s death. His visit back home was met with rising protests against the Thai government, led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who was slammed for his pro-royalist tone and allowing the army to maintain its grip on power. Student-led demonstrations demanded Prayuth’s resignation and rejection of the new constitution which extended more power to the monarchy. The protestors called for reforms to curb the powers of King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

Student protestors even marched towards and carried demonstration outside the German embassy in Bangkok to press the European nation to conduct fair investigation into the king’s activities in Germany. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas then responded that the authorities would “permanently review the goings-on and act immediately if things are found that we perceive to breach the law.”

Contradicting the ministry’s claim, the parliamentary researchers submitted a document stating, “The granting of visa-free entry for the Thai king’s private visits in Germany cannot be justified through utilization and interpretation of the relevant laws… At best, one can assume the existence of a legal loophole.”

Sevim Dagdelen, the member of the Left Party and party’s representative on the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, was the one to push initiate the parliamentary researchers towards the issue, demanding clarification over Thai King’s stay in the country, even during the lockdown months when everything was shut down. “The Federal Government must stop pretending its hands are tied and start to use the immigration law’s leeway to stop the Thai king from continuing his despotic governing from Germany,” Dagdelen told media.

Slamming foreign ministry’s coverup for the Thai’s travels and stays in German, Margarete Bause, the Greens’ spokesperson on human rights, said that the latest Bundestag’s presidential research document was less than a slap in the face for the German government. “The foreign ministry has for months been wiggling around the issue and uses any possible legal grey zone to avoid positioning itself clearly,” said Bause. “Especially in view of the increasingly harsh crackdown against the Thai opposition, it is irresponsible that the German government effectively grants the Thai king permanent special rights,” she added

Italy’s coalition government on edge, in danger of losing vote of confidence
Europe

Italy’s coalition government on edge, in danger of losing vote of confidence

Italian coalition government has been witnessing political crisis. The country’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte, who won vote of confidence in lower house on Monday, has been under a lot of pressure as the main test of his political prowess depends on the vote in the upper house, the Senate due on Tuesday. The Italy’s ruling government has been on the edge, since former prime minister Matteo Renzi withdrew the support of his party Italia Viva (Italy Alive) from the ruling coalition last week.

Conte‘s lower house win gave him a little hope, where the government escaped defeat by 321 to 259 votes. The coalition won by greater than expected margin, but the danger of losing power continue to loom until the result of the upper house would be out. In his speech, given at the lower house, Conte said that the country was at a precarious turn, when forming a new government would be too risky an affair. Conte said that the need of the hour was to stand together to fight the exiting battles against Covid-19 pandemic and crumbling economy. He added that Italy needed “a cohesive government,” with “an essential European mission, pursuing a clear choice of field against nationalist tendencies.”  

He said, “We risk losing touch with reality … All our energies should be focused on the urgent crisis facing the country,” referring to the pandemic onslaught. The country had been one of the worst impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, which claimed over 82,000 lives and reduced its economy to ruins. Amidst the global health tragedy, Conte defended his government’s efforts in dealing with the situation put forward by the unprecedented disease.

Conte’s center-left coalition government, at present include the left-wing populist Five Star Movement (MS5) and the center-left Democratic Party (PD) as its remaining allies after Renzi’s exit. Critics slammed former premier’s exit from the coalition government, triggering political crisis in the country at the juncture when nation was battling a major health disaster. Renzi orchestrated the resignation of two cabinet ministers and a junior minister following a disagreement with Conte over spending of EU fund as the nation is bound to receive €209 billion ($250 billion) as a recover fund from the bloc.

US-Canada initiate work towards policy alignment as Biden takes over US Presidency
Americas

US-Canada initiate work towards policy alignment as Biden takes over US Presidency

US-Canada initiate work: One of the closest allies in the American history, have initiated policy alignment discussions to prepare groundwork for the new presidential era. Joe Biden would be officially succeeding Donald Trump as the US next president on January 20. Interestingly, Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau was among the first few leaders who acknowledged Biden’s election win and congratulated him for the same. 

“It’s very much a tradition that the Canadian prime minister and the U.S. president meet very quickly to be able to talk about all the tremendous things that we can do together,” Trudeau said in an interview to Reuters on Thursday

The Canadian leader has been looking forward to the beginning of new era in the US political history with the end of Trump’s reign, who following his Canada visit in 2018 called Trudeau as “very dishonest and weak”. 

On the contrary, the Liberal Canadian Premier shared close ties with former Democratic President Barack Obama. In December 2016, after Trump’s election win, Biden, Obama’s vice-president, passed the progressive torch to Trudeau on a visit to Ottawa.

“The world’s going to spend a lot of time looking to you, Mr. Prime Minister, as we see more and more challenges to the liberal international order than any time since the end of World War Two,” Biden said.

It would be a golden period for US-Canada ties as Biden and Trudeau share common vision on various issues. Though the biggest hurdle between the two would be around Biden’s economic policy which is focused around “buy America” policy.

“I do think that he’s been pretty clear around some of the aspects of his economic policy that are a little more protectionist than we would want to see,” Ambassador Kirsten Hillman told Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

During his campaign, Biden committed to launch a $400 billion investment to promote US-made goods and said “when we spend taxpayer money, we should buy American products”.

Biden’s economic policy could be a bone of contention with one of the US largest trading partner, as Canadian economy is highly dependent on Washington, which imports about 75% of all Canadian goods exports.

“We are both focusing on, first and foremost, combating COVID, ensuring the safety and health of our citizens, respecting science…There’s a lot of alignment on climate policy…So, I mean, the list is long of policy coordination,” Hillman said.

Hillman added that both the leaders, share great camaraderie and common understanding over various issues. “So that is definitely going to be an asset”.

South Korea’s Ex-President Park to serve 20-years in prison
Asia Pacific Focus

South Korea’s Ex-President Park to serve 20-years in prison

South Korea’s Ex-President: On Thursday, the apex court of South Korea reasserted the verdict with regard to 20-years imprisonment of former President Park Geun-hye. South Korea’s  ex-President was arrested in 2017 due to her involvement in multiple crimes ranging from abuse of power, embezzlement of funds to bribery. Besides the sentence, she was fined with 18 billion won ($16.4 million) and was asked to forfeit another 3.5 billion won.

The 68-year-old, faced impeachment in 2016 and was officially thrown out of the power in in March 2017. She was taken into custody towards the end of that month and has since been kept behind bars. Park was excommunicated from the presidential office before the completion of her five-year term. She still had one year left when she was booted out. 

The immediate cause of her exit was violation of the country’s election law, as she interfered in a party nominee selection ahead of the 2016 general election. Besides, in her subsequent trials, she was also charged for taking bribes from big conglomerates such as Samsung and Lotte Group and was accused of conspiring with her longtime friend Choi Soon Sil.

Park called herself a victim of political retribution and stopped attending court sessions since initial phase of her trials. She did not even appeal against the verdict of the Seoul High Court, which awarded her 20-year sentence in July 2020. The final sentence 20-years of imprisonment was 10 years less than what was originally proposed. According to the earlier verdict, Park was to serve 30-years in jail, including 25 years for bribery involving transactions from big corporate houses, and five years for misappropriation of funds related to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.

But in October 2019, country’s Supreme Court ordered the Seoul High Court to treat her bribery case separately from other charges. The apex court eventually repealed the verdict sending it back to a lower court for a retrial. It resulted in the Seoul High Court giving ruling of 20-years of imprisonment in July.

Democrats initiate Trump’s impeachment, once again
Americas

Democrats initiate Trump’s impeachment, once again

Trump’s impeachment: Just days before incumbent US President Donald Trump’s formal exit from White House, Democrats issued two resolutions on Monday to push him out of the office. The first resolution used the 25th Amendment to the US constitution, to urge Vice-President Mike Pence to convene the White House cabinet to initiate exit vote on Trump. The move, which required unanimous approval from the entire cabinet, was blocked by a West Virginia Republican. It led to rescheduling of debate and vote on Trump’s presidency to Tuesday.

If the move didn’t prove to be successful, as many experts already anticipate, then second resolution would be used, which said that on Wednesday the House would start debate on Trump’s impeachment on the basis of inciting insurrection. 

Supporters of the impeachment resolution expressed their confidence with regard to number of votes favoring his impeachment. It is the second time that an impeachment resolution has been raised against Trump. Analysts believe that if majority votes favor Trump’s removal then Senate would initiate a trial to decide whether or not to convict him of the political basis.

US President-elect Joe Biden would officially take over the US Presidency on January 20, after the oath taking ceremony. But Democrats doesn’t seem to be in any mood to take any chances with the Republican President, especially after the US Capitol Hill fiasco and his controversial statements, endangering peaceful transition of power.  

Recent events in US politics give a glimpse of horror in-store for future. In a widely circulated resignation letter on social media, by Chad Wolf, US Homeland Security Chief, he said, “Unfortunately, this action is warranted by the recent events, including the ongoing and meritless court rulings regarding the validity of my authority as acting secretary,” he said, “which serve to divert attention and resources away from the important work of the Department in this critical time of a transition of power”. Wolf submits his resignation a week from Trump’s official exit and all elected officials as a gesture to “strongly condemn” the Capitol riot.

Pompeo threatens China with sanctions over Hong Kong detentions
Asia Pacific Focus

Pompeo threatens China with sanctions over Hong Kong detentions

Pompeo threatens China: In response to China’s detention of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong on Wednesday, including a US citizen, John Clancey, US threatened to issue sanctions against those involved in the arrest. On Thursday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the China’s crack down of power over protestors and said he was “appalled” by the arrest of an American citizen. In a strong message to Beijing, which might lead to retaliation, Pompeo said, “The United States will not tolerate the arbitrary detention or harassment of US citizens.” 

Pompeo called the act  an “outrage and a reminder of the Chinese Communist Party’s contempt for its own people and the rule of law.” He said, “The United States will consider sanctions and other restrictions on any and all individuals and entities involved in executing this assault on the Hong Kong people.”  Besides, the US Secretary of State added that Washington might even “explore restrictions against the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in the United States, and take additional immediate actions against officials who have undermined Hong Kong’s democratic processes.”

Timing of Pompeo’s statement did not play out in his favour as the detention in Beijing was followed by barbaric intervention of Trump supporters in Congress, in a bid to overturn the Presidential election results, which otherwise claimed Joe Biden as the country’s next President. On Thursday, Trump finally conceded his defeat and accepted that Joe Biden, who is due to be sworn in on Jan. 20, would succeed him.

The entire episode at US Capitol was enough for Chinese state media to mock at its rival’s internal affairs, especially when Washington has been pointing fingers at state of affairs in Hong Kong. On Friday, Beijing accused Washington of holding  “double standards.”

“In Hong Kong, violent actions are described as a ‘beautiful sight,’ in the U.S., people involved in this chaos are called ‘mobs’,” said The Global Times, a state-owned tabloid.

With respect to Pompeo’s comments, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said it a serious interference in China’s internal affairs. He said, “China will take all necessary steps to resolutely safeguard its sovereignty and security interests. The United States must pay a heavy price for its mistakes.” He also warned Washington “to stop its crazy provocation” and added that “whoever plays with fire will burn himself.”

On Wednesday, Chinese authorities took about 53 activities and politicians in its custody, under the new security law. The American human rights lawyer Clancey, who was later granted bail along with few others on Thursday, said that the pro-democracy supporters would “continue to work for democracy and human rights in Hong Kong.”

Besides US, many rights groups including Amnesty International also slammed the Chinese authorities for misusing the national security law. The rights group said that the arrests were “the starkest demonstration yet of how the national security law has been weaponised to punish anyone who dares to challenge the establishment”. 

Maya Wang, Chinese senior researcher at Human Rights Watch said, “Beijing once again has failed to learn from its mistakes in Hong Kong: that repression generates resistance & that millions of HK people will persist in their struggle for their right to vote and run for office in a democratically elected government”

According to the handover of the former British colony to China by the British regime in 1997, it was decided that the semi-autonomous territory would be operated by Beijing under “one country, two systems” principle. Of late, Beijing started pressing greater control over the city, drawing criticism that Hong Kong’s freedoms were under threat.

S Korea’s Moon Jae-in grapples with falling approval ratings
Asia Pacific Focus

S Korea’s Moon Jae-in grapples with falling approval ratings

Moon Jae-in grapples: At a time when Moon Jae-in’s approval ratings are falling, Blue House announced a cabinet reshuffle

Amid a range of policy failures and mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis, Moon Jae-in’s approval rating fell to an all-time low this week. A weekly poll on Thursday showed South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s approval rating falling by 1.5 percentage points to 35.1 percent in the first week of January 2021. At the same time, his disapproval rating hit a record high of 61.7 percent, with about 34.2 percent of respondents in South Korea backing the main opposition People Power Party (PPP).

This approval rating has come as a warning to Moon Jae-in’s presidency in South Korea as it reached its lowest point since his inauguration in May 2017. This development has come as a result of the Moon administration’s inability to bring stability to South Korea’s housing market.

His government’s policies also failed to improve the livelihood of people amid the pandemic circumstances. While South Korea was lauded for its proactive response to COVID-19, it’s expedient measures couldn’t control the virus spread as cases continued to rise in major cities. Amid the pandemic, economy deteriorated, unemployment rose and workers faced mass layoffs which led to a reduction in support rate for the Moon administration. 

An increasing conflict and political bickering between Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae and Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl over prosecutorial reforms has also impacted people’s support on Moon and the ruling DPK.

At a time when Moon Jae-in’s approval rating reduced, the Blue House announced new appointments for presidential chief of staff and senior secretary for civil affairs backed by the President. Former Chief of Staff Noh Young-min presented the new cabinet members – Yoo Young-min as the new presidential chief of staff and Shin Hyun-soo as the new senior secretary for civil affairs. With Yoo’s expertise in science and ICT, Moon is aiming to work on various state affairs in a bid to lead the fourth industrial revolution. Newly-appointed senior secretary for civil affairs reportedly has a robust expertise in reformation of the judicial system as he previously worked as a planning director at the National Intelligence Service.

In addition, Moon decided to restate Kim Sang-jo as the presidential chief of staff for policy, particularly at a time when the country is fighting with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Significantly, according to experts, this untimely cabinet reshuffle has come at a time when Moon is struggling with decreasing approval rating. With these new appointments, the President is aiming to better manage the state affairs in order improve his approval rating among the public. 

EU regulator authorises Moderna Covid-19 vaccine
Europe

EU regulator authorises Moderna Covid-19 vaccine

Moderna Covid-19 vaccine: On Wednesday, European Union regulator authorised the use of Moderna Covid-19 vaccine for the bloc. It is the second vaccine approved by the 27-member Union. The decision came amidst the rising criticism regarding slow pace of vaccination, which was required to shield 450 million population of the region. The announcement was made after European Medicines Agency gave a go ahead to the Moderna vaccine with an aim to increase number of vaccination doses available for the bloc.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, “We are providing more COVID-19 vaccines for Europeans. With the Moderna vaccine, the second one now authorized in the EU, we will have a further 160 million doses. And more vaccines will come.”

“This vaccine provides us with another tool to overcome the current emergency,” said EMA Executive Director Emer Cooke. “It is a testament to the efforts and commitment of all involved that we have this second positive vaccine recommendation just short of a year since the pandemic was declared by WHO.”

Last month, EU provided similar authorisation to US vaccine developer Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech. In case of both the vaccines, people are required to take two shots at the gap of about two-three weeks. As per the existing deal with Pfizer-BioNTech, EU would be purchasing 300 million doses. But with the current approvals granted to Moderna, EU would avail 80 million more doses, with an option to further extend the order to 80 million extra doses. Besides, Moderna gained an upper hand over rest of the vaccines as it is easier to handle, transport and did require ultra-frozen temperatures for the storage.

Both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech have been labelled safe to use as they both employ mRNA vaccine technology, which imply that the vaccine doesn’t contain any coronavirus. Instead, the medicine uses a certain type of genetic code which signals the immune system when it contacts a spike protein on the surface of the virus, about to attack.

Welcoming the move, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides said that the vaccine authorization “will ensure that 460 million doses will be rolled out with increasing speed in the EU, and more will come. Member States have to ensure that the pace of vaccinations follows suit.”

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz also commended the decision and wrote on Twitter that approval of the Moderna vaccine “is another important step in the fight against the pandemic. This means we have more vaccine available in the EU and can fight the pandemic faster.”

Moderna said that it was working towards producing about 500 to 600 million doses in 2021 to meet the global demand. On Monday, the pharmaceutical company said it is “continuing to invest and add staff to build up to potentially 1 billion doses for 2021.”

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