The Shanghai Cooperation Organization

It is not a a household name like NATO and the European Union, but the milquetoast-sounding Shanghai Cooperation Organization may become one of the most important geopolitical blocs in the world. Iran’s recent entry into the Eurasian alliance has given it a rare spotlight in mainstream Western news media.

Founded two decades ago, the SCO is the world’s largest regional organisation, covering three-fifths of the Eurasian continent, nearly half the human population, and one-fifth of global GDP. It originated from a mutual security agreement in the 1990s between Russia, China, and several Central Asian countries (all former Soviet republics), which committed to maintaining “military trust” along their border regions.

But since being announced by member governments in Shanghai in 2001, the SCO has become more integrated along political, economic, and even cultural lines, in addition to beefing up military cooperation beyond simply maintaining border security. The fact that the alliance is led by two of America’s chief rivals, and comprised mostly of authoritarian countries, certainly adds to its image as the principal antinode to the Western-led world order.

No doubt Iran’s membership will add to that perception, though it also joins the likes of India and Pakistan, which became members in 2017, both of which are close (if tenuous) partners with the United States and other Western countries.

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In fact, many analysts warn that the perception of the SCO as an anti-American or anti-Western bloc is vastly overstated. While it is certainly predicated on the idea of a “multipolar” world—coded language for an international order not dominated by the U.S. specifically—the group is far from presenting itself as anything akin to an “Eastern” NATO:

Rather than major political or economic gains, Iran’s main takeaway from this success in the short term may be limited to a boost in prestige and diplomacy.

The main issue with Iran’s approach towards the SCO is that it looks at it as a “concert of non-Western great powers” rather than a modern international organisation, and views it in an anti-Western or anti-US setting, says Hamidreza Azizi, visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

“This is despite the fact that countries such as Pakistan and India are US’s close partners, and even Russia and China have never been willing to openly challenge the US on the global scene,” Azizi told Al Jazeera.

“The combination of these two misunderstandings, and also Iran’s self-perception as a natural hegemon in West Asia, would make the whole thing appear to the Iranian leaders as Iran joining other anti-Western great powers to form a strong coalition that is going to challenge the US hegemony.”

Azizi added that SCO members are reluctant to entangle themselves in Iran’s rivalries, which may be why, on Friday, they also admitted Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt as “dialogue partners” in a balancing effort.

From a diplomatic perspective, the approval is significant.

Indeed, for a country as diplomatically and economically isolated as Iran, joining such a large and imposing regional body, whatever its limitations, is at least good optics.

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A slightly dated map showing SCO partners (dark green), observers (light green) and “dialogue partners” (yellow). Source: Wikimedia Commons

The SCO is far from being a full-fledged alliance with formal and binding commitments among its members; there is nothing like NATO’s Article 5, which obligates all members to come to the defense of another member in an attack, nor does it have the level of economic integration of the European Union. As one analyst describes it, the SCO is more of a “venue” for discussion among “high-level dignitaries”—which is perfectly suited for mostly autocratic countries that jealously guard their sovereignty.

Still, many powerful regional blocs like the EU did start from humble beginnings, growing from diplomatic talk shops to fully institutionalized arrangements over the span of decades. A wide array of countries have expressed interest in joining the group or are currently engaged with it in some way, including NATO members like Turkey and strategic partners like Saudi Arabia. It remains to be seen if the SCO will ever become as tightly integrated as its Western counterparts, though this is unlikely given its explicit commitment to nonintervention in members’ affairs—which ironically makes it all the more appealing for certain countries to join.

The Developing Countries Winning Against COVID-19

It’s been heartening to see that many poorer countries or regions are faring a lot better than expected. For all the death and suffering that’s occured, it’s important to acknowledge the deaths and pain that haven’t—and to derive some important lessons, since these are places that don’t have our wealth and resources.

Costa Rica has had one of the most successful pandemic responses in the world. It was the first Latin American country to record a case—which is actually indicative of its open and efficient monitoring—and citizens have been able to lean on its universal healthcare system, on which it spends a higher proportion of its GDP than the average rich country (and subsequently has one of the world’s highest life expectancies). It implemented nationwide lockdowns and tests quickly, and has done a good enough job that it stared partially lifting restrictions as early as May 1st—albeit with strict restrictions (only a quarter of seats can be filled in sporting venues, while small businesses are limited in the number of customers they can serve).

The country’s President Carlos Alvarado has been transparent: “We have had relative and fragile success, but we cannot let our guard down.” Hence the borders will remain closed until at least this Friday, while restrictions will remain on driving to keep the virus from spreading: Driving at night is banned and drivers may only drive on certain days depending on their license plate number.

Ghana and Rwanda—which hardly come to mind as world-class innovators—each teamed up with an American company to become the first countries in the world to deliver medical aid and tests via drones to out-of-reach rural areas. Doctors and health facilities use an app to order blood, vaccines, and protective equipment that get delivered in just minutes. Rwanda, which has become a little known but prominent tech hub, started using drones as early as 2016 for 21 hospitals; now the drones are used to serve close to 2,500 hospitals and health facilities across Rwanda and Ghana.

Vietnam (with almost 100 million people) and the Indian state of Kerala (roughly the size of California), both learned from previous outbreaks and acted quickly and decisively to contain the outbreak. As the Economist magazine put it, despite their poverty, they have “a long legacy of investment in public health and particularly in primary care, with strong, centralised management, an institutional reach from city wards to remote villages and an abundance of skilled personnel.” Lack of wealth did not stop them from making the necessary investments.

Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic that’s hardly a household name, has pioneered remote learning. Two days after its lockdown, the Ministry of Public Education announced an unprecedented plan to roll out virtual courses and resources for its 6.1 million school students. In a matter of days, it made available over 350 video lessons to go live on national TV channels; the lessons are available in the dominant languages of Uzbek and Russian as well as sign language. Free data access has been granted to educational platforms, making them accessible for all school students and their parents. An average of 100 video classes are being prepared daily.

While it is too soon to tell what’s in store for these nations in the long term, they have proven that you don’t need lots of wealth and power to develop an effective and humane response to crises. If anything, their poverty and historic challenges have made them more resourceful and decisive, thus providing useful lessons for the rest of the world.

How Average Indians Revived a Beachside Dump Into a Turtle Hatchery

In spring of 2018, something amazing happened in one of the most polluted beaches in the world: For the first time in decades, an extremely vulnerable turtle species has been spotted on the shores of Mumbai, India.

As The Guardian reported:

At least 80 Olive Ridley turtles have made their way into the Arabian Sea from nests on the southern end of Versova beach in the past week, protected from wild dogs and birds of prey by volunteers who slept overnight in the sand to watch over them.

Versova has undergone what the United Nations has called the “world’s largest beach cleanup project” over the past two years, transformed from a shin-deep dump yard for plastics and rubbish to a virtually pristine piece of coastline.

The man who leads the ongoing cleanup operation, the lawyer Afroz Shah, said he started anticipating the turtle hatchings two months ago when farmers on the southern end of the two-mile (3km) beach reported seeing turtles in the sand.

“The moment we got that news I knew something big was going to happen,” he told the Guardian. Last Thursday, some of his volunteers called to say they had spotted dozens of baby Olive Ridley turtles emerging from their nests.

He called the forest department and then went down to the beach with about 25 others, guarding the area while the tiny creatures hobbled across the sand, “making sure not one hatchling suffered a death”, he said.

In just two years, average Indians were able to reverse ecological devastation and watch a dying species begin to rejuvenate. Imagine volunteering day and night to make sure these little creatures had a fighting chance.

For more than two years, Shah has been leading volunteers in manually picking up rubbish from Versova beach and teaching sustainable waste practices to villagers and people living in slums along the coastline and the creeks leading into it.

About 55,000 people live along the beach and the waterways that feed it in the crowded megacity. Shah said he taught them by example, offering to clean communal toilets and pick up rubbish himself before he ever sought their help.

“For the first six to eight weeks, nobody joined,” he said. “Then two men approached me and said, very politely, ‘Please sir, can we wear your gloves?’ Both of them just came and joined me. That’s when I knew it was going to be a success.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, in the eastern state of Odisha, a record-breaking 428,083 Olive Ridley turtles had nested a month before. This is hardly an isolated incident.

Think about these little-known success stories whenever we hear rhetoric about the developing world not pulling its weight in the fight against climate change or ecological devastation.

And let’s keep these efforts in mind when we begin to lose hope that we are losing this fight. In the grand scheme of things, cleaning up one polluted beach for one single species doesn’t seem like a lot, but it reveals our amazing potential to fix things if we have actually invested the time and will power.

Source: The Guardian

The Asian Giants Leading the Fight Against Climate Change

NASA finds that Earth is greener than two decades ago thanks mostly to China and India—the world’s two most populous countries, which together make up 36% of humanity.

Despite being considered bad actors in environmental policies and climate change reduction, both nations have significantly ramped up efforts to be more eco-friendly; for example, India has engaged in record tree planting, with 800,000 Indians planting 50 million trees in just 24 hours.

The European Union and Canada have also seen significant improvements in this area. The U.S. ranks seventh in the total growth in vegetation percent by decade.

Although not mentioned in the study, Ethiopia, which is the world’s 12th most populous countries, has entered the fray in reforestation, beating India’s already-astounding record by planting 350 million trees in one day.

Bear in mind that a country that largely kept its forests and vegetation intact would appear to perform worse in re-vegetation than a country that had heavily deforested and thus has more room to grow.

These efforts are far from token: Research suggests that planting trees—lots of them—can significantly help mitigate the effects of climate change, to say nothing of their contributions to human well being.

If these two heavily populated and developing countries can find the will and resources to pull this off—despite the heavy demands to bring economic prosperity to their people—there is some hope, and certainly no excuse.

Source: Forbes

The World’s Tallest Statue

On Wednesday, India unveiled the world’s tallest statue: The Statue of Unity, which depicts the country’s first deputy prime minister and major independence leader, Vallabhbhai Patel. It is about twice the size of the Statue of Liberty, and taller than the previous record-holder, China’s Spring Temple Buddha.

Funny enough, it will not be the tallest statue for long: India’s state of Maharashtra is constructing a memorial to the Maratha warrior king Shivaji that will be several meters taller.

In addition to playing a leading role in organizing nonviolent resistance against the British, Patel was instrumental in forging a cohesive, democratic republic from the politically fragmented British Raj, which included both British-controlled colonies and over 560 self-governing “princely states” that had been indirectly ruled.

Through both force of personality and de facto command of the military, he managed to cajole nearly all these states to join India; this uncompromising willingness to do whatever it took to form India earned him the moniker of the “Iron Man of India” and “Unifier of India”. Patel was also the founder of the country’s massive civil service, the “All India Services”, which he identified as the “steel frame” of the country that would cement a fractious, disunified society.

Although widely beloved for his decisive leadership in founding India, many locals protested the construction and dedication to the statue, believing it to be a waste of well needed public funds; demonstrators were subsequently kept at bay during the unveiling ceremony.

See a slideshow of its construction here.

Source: BBC

The Battle of Liaoluo Bay

On this day in 1633, China’s naval forces decisively defeated the Dutch East India Company’s fleet in the Battle of Liaoluo Bay, the largest naval encounter between Chinese and European forces before the First Opium War more than two centuries later. The battle was part of a wider conflict against Dutch efforts to dominate maritime trade and colonize the Chinese coast.

Governed by the Ming Dynasty for nearly three hundred years, China was at the time perhaps the wealthiest and most powerful civilization: its population of 160-200 million was about one-fourth the world’s population; its GDP is estimated to have been a third of the global economy; and its governance is considered to have been “one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history”, with entrance examinations, a meritocratic philosophy, and several dedicated departments and ministries (such as for revenue, justice, and public works).

For its part, the Dutch East India Company (VOC in Dutch) was the world’s first multinational company and megacorporation, pioneering practices and organizational methods that presaged the rise of modern capitalism (such as issuing stock, directing foreign investment, and diversifying into commercial and industrial activities). It was also a de facto arm of the Dutch Republic, a commercial superpower that utilized the VOC to take on powerful empires in both Europe and Asia. The VOC possessed quasi-governmental powers, including the right to maintain a powerful military, wage war, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties, produce its own currency, and establish colonies.

The Battle of Liaoluo Bay was something of a last hurrah for the Chinese; while they would score several more military and diplomatic victories against European powers, and would maintain an advanced military, China would eventually be overtaken and dominated by its Western rivals—though never wholly colonized or controlled—especially beginning from the First Opium War with the British Empire, by then the world’s new superpower.

Source: The Company’s Chinese Pirates: How the Dutch East India Company Tried to Lead a Coalition of Pirates to War against China, 1621-1662

Photos: Chinese-American Rivalry in Asia

As China grows more powerful, it is challenging America’s decades-long dominance of Southeast Asia. As New York Times reported, most countries are either leaning towards China or playing both sides to their advantage.

U.S. v. China

Even staunch U.S. allies are increasingly orienting towards China, namely in terms of commercial ties: every Asian country now trades more with China than the U.S., often by a factor of two to one, an imbalance that will only widen as China’s economic growth outpaces that of America’s.

screenshot-www.nytimes.com-2018.10.16-16-11-27

Nevertheless, many of the 20 countries caught between the two powers do not want to choose sides, instead opting to pursue “strategies intended to draw maximum benefit from both powers, minimize risks of angering either and preserve their independence”.  This is far from the clean lines drawn between the Americans and Soviets in Cold War-era Europe.

 

Pakistan’s Environmental Milestone

When it comes to environmental progress, Pakistan is far from anyone’s mind. Yet according to a recent report by the World Economic Forum, a Swiss nonprofit foundation, the country has planted over a billion trees, making its otherwise barren northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa resplendent with fresh saplings. Continue reading

India Unveils Largest Health Care System in History, First Manned Space Mission

India has long been touted as a potential superpower. To that end, it is taking a few bold moves into that direction.

During a speech marking the country’s independence day, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, announced that the government will begin providing health coverage to its poorest citizens starting September 25th. As Newsweek reported: Continue reading

Where Most Sporting Goods Are Made

The Pakistani city of Sialkot may not be a household name, but it is the source of the Adidas footballs that are being used in the World Cup (as they had been in the last one).

In fact, Pakistan’s twelfth-largest city — with less than 700,000 residents — is the world’s largest producer of footballs, manufacturing of 40-60 million footballs annually, about 60% of global production. Sialkot is also the world’s biggest maker of surgical tools. Even Germany’s iconic lenderhosen are best crafted by the leather-workers of the city. Unlike many other manufacturing hubs, most of this work is done by family-owned small and medium sized enterprises, often clustering together to pool their resources. Continue reading