14 January 2021

Dhanushkodi Fisherfolk: 50 Years of Life on the Edge

By Sugato Mukherjee

Fisherfolk hauling in a net filled with fish after a boat returns on Dhanushkodi’s shores. They form human chains on both ends of a long rope, and pull the heavy net onto the sandy beach.Credit: Sugato Mukherjee

The marine life of Dhanushkodi is plentiful and it is home to exotic varieties of fish, crabs, and lobsters.Credit: Sugato Mukherjee

Fishing in Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean depends on seasonal winds and fishermen elsewhere in coastal areas of India operate for five or six months in a year. However, Dhanushkodi fishermen can take advantage of its unique location at the confluence of the two seas. They carry on fishing year-round, using their intense knowledge of the local marine life.Credit: Sugato Mukherjee

A fisherwoman carrying the day’s catch to sell.Credit: Sugato Mukherjee

India Asks Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa Government to Ensure Power Devolution

By Sudha Ramachandran

Sri Lankan Tamil grievances are fast reemerging as an important issue in India-Sri Lanka relations. During his recent visit to Colombo, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar called on the Sri Lankan government to implement the 13th amendment (or 13A as it is called) to the Sri Lankan Constitution.

It is in Sri Lanka’s “own interest” that the Tamil people’s expectations for “equality, justice, peace and dignity” within a united country are met, Jaishankar said in the presence of his Sri Lankan counterpart Dinesh Gunawardena at a press conference in the Sri Lankan capital. Drawing attention to “the commitments made by the Sri Lankan government on meaningful devolution, including the 13th Amendment to the Constitution,” the Indian foreign minister pointed out that “progress and prosperity of Sri Lanka will surely be advanced as a consequence” of its implementation.

Jaishankar’s statement is unlikely to have gone down well with the Sri Lankan government.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, are strong proponents of the centralization of power and favor the scrapping of 13A or diluting its provisions. An array of forces among Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority, including parties like the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Party and the Janata Vimukti Peramuna, as well as Sinhala nationalist and Buddhist organizations, want to see 13A repealed as they are against any power sharing with the island’s Tamil ethnic minority.

How the CCP Governs: The View from a Chinese Town

How does the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule China? While a good deal of external analysis and media coverage centers on the view from Beijing, it is in China’s towns, cities, and villages that the real governing action occurs. And this is where most Chinese citizens encounter the CCP as an organization. While Xi Jinping may be the most well-known CCP member, it is the local Party secretary who instantiates the Communist Party.

The town of Niangziguan (population 11,446) is located 224 miles southwest of Beijing, near the junction of the Shanxi and Hebei provinces. Nearly 30,000 tourists arrive each year to visit its many scenic spots, the most famous being the remnants of the Guguan Great Wall, which was first built in 369 BC. The influx of tourists aside, like many other towns and villages around the country, Niangziguan struggles to balance its present agricultural realities with the many aspirations its people and town leadership have for its modernization potential.

There are many towns like Niangziguan throughout China, and they provide important windows into the lived realities of the CCP’s mechanisms and tools of governance and control. While the CCP general secretary dreams of China’s global ascendency and country’s great “rejuvenation,” more prosaic concerns dominate in small towns and villages.

In order to better understand local-level governance, the CSIS Freeman Chair is releasing the following translation of an official notice by the town’s CCP committee on the eve of the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 2019. The lengthy document comprehensively catalogues various economic, political, and security risks, many of them understandable, while others seem more fanciful or remote. Interestingly, a large portion of the document is focused on protecting Niangziguan from so-called “hostile forces,” including overseas elements of the Catholic church and pro-democracy activists. While it is possible that Niangziguan officials truly believe that the town must actively guard against “color revolutions” (as the document declares), it is more likely that Xi Jinping’s relentless campaign to snuff out any and all threats to the CCP has infused small-town governance. Regardless, the document is a revealing window into the concerns of the CCP in the first half of the twenty-first century.

China-Japan fish fight could make UK’s Cod War look like small fry

Neil Newman

When I first went to Japan
as an “alien” in the 1980s, my British palate was confronted with all manner of strange food – and I reached the hasty conclusion that the Japanese couldn’t cook for toffee. As a young banker fresh off the boat I sought refuge in Indian restaurants or in one of the few affordable French and Italian places introduced by like-minded culinary hostages – the locals could at least boil spaghetti and had a ketchup-based sauce called “Napolitan”.

During my first stint in Japan, despite the massive differences in cuisine and a firm conviction that seaweed and sparrows shouldn’t be eaten, I came to the conclusion that the Japanese and the  British were very much alike in many ways:

• They are an island nation that historically fell out with their neighbours. The animosity is shared as their neighbours dislike them accordingly.

• They drink an awful lot of beer and don’t hold back on a night out, roaring with laughter to jokes largely based on word play and puns which only locals can truly “get”.

• Fish is core to their diet and commands a nationalistic sentiment. Having sustained them during wartime, it is worth fighting for – something the British have shown during 

China’s Real Threat Is to America’s Ruling Ideology

Across the political spectrum, there is widespread agreement that America must get serious about the threat posed by China. As the Trump administration comes to a close, the State Department has just released a document called ‘The Elements of the China Challenge’. A distillation of conventional wisdom among national security experts and government officials, it argues that the U.S. needs a concerted effort to push back against Beijing. On its first page, the document tells us that “the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has triggered a new era of great-power competition.” If there was a major intellectual thread running through Trump’s foreign policy, or at least that of the people he appointed, it was that confronting China was the national security issue of our time. America during the Trump era was single-minded in its focus on turning up the pressure on Beijing, including unprecedented support for Taiwan, sending ships more often through the South China Sea, and attempting to stop the spread of the telecom giant Huawei.

The idea of the China threat will not end with the Trump administration. Michèle Flournoy, once thought to be the frontrunner to become Biden’s Secretary of Defense, argued in Foreign Affairs that the U.S. has not been steadfast enough in its military commitments in East Asia. Sometimes, great power competition is presented as an imperative of history; in the formulation of Graham Allison, a former Pentagon official and the current professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the two powers are involved in a “Thucydides Trap.” Looking at the last 500 years of world history, Allison believes that when the ambitions of a rising power conflict with those of an established power, war becomes likely.

What Has Not Changed in U.S.-China Relations

by John Cookson

In the last few years, it has become gospel in Washington that the status quo of U.S. policy toward China cannot continue—that China’s rise has reached a tipping point where the mix of containment and trade that characterized U.S. policy for decades is doomed. As a result, advocates of this view argue, a radical change toward a more aggressive stance is needed to protect U.S. interests in Asia.

Recognizing the shift in U.S. views of China is necessary. No serious policy proposal can ignore the sea change in attitudes that is already evident among U.S. policymakers, scholars, and even the general public. But recalling what has not changed—what is unlikely to change—between the two superpowers is even more important when crafting a responsible U.S. policy in East Asia.

First, neither China nor the U.S. wants to invade the other. Nuclear weapons make regime change an assured catastrophe. Nor are there any real gains to be had from invasion and occupation were it possible without nuclear annihilation. The era of extractive colonialism and overt imperialism is thankfully over.

Mutual deterrence against invasion is easy to take for granted, but it is precisely this feature that separates the current competition from earlier great-power conflicts resulting in open war. While today the U.S. and China may disagree, neither’s very existence is threatened. That fact should frame all disagreements in a less confrontational light.

China Has a New Scout Drone (But How Much Does It Matter?)

by Kris Osborn

Armed assault vehicles operating ground and aerial robots worked in tandem with other combat assets to demonstrate a new People’s Liberation Army tank-like reconnaissance robot.

The recent exercises, the Chinese government-backed Global Times paper said, included “a special mission reconnaissance robot, the use of newly commissioned assault vehicles and the practice of coordinated aerial drone swarm operations.”

The robot is a robot ground vehicle which runs on caterpillar tracks, with sensors and surveillance technology installed on its turret. The Chinese robot engaged in something U.S. Army Futures Command has been working on for years, unmanned-unmanned teaming wherein air and ground drones share information in real time. 

“The robot can replace soldiers in early infiltration missions. It comes with reconnaissance and positioning functions, and can spot and destroy small targets,” said Zhang Xuanming, a squad leader of the PLA brigade, in a CCTV report, as cited by the Global Times. 

Yes, China Is a Military Superpower

by Sebastien Roblin

Here's What You Need to Remember: The PLA Air Force and Navy both operate the H-6 long-range strategic jet bomber, a domestic copy of the Soviet Tu-16 ‘Badger’. Like the U.S. B-52, the H-6 can’t go anywhere near enemy fighters or air-defense missiles but can safely truck along very long-range missiles.

On October 1, 2019 the People’s Republic of China’s celebrated the seventieth anniversary of its official founding after Mao Zedong consolidated the Chinese Communist Party’s control over mainland China.

For the occasion, Beijing paraded cutting-edge military systems on Tiananmen Square deemed ready to unveil before audiences both domestic and international. 

Formerly reliant on reverse-engineered Soviet weapons from the 1950s, China has leveraged forty years of sustained economic growth to not only develop new tanks, jet fighters and aircraft carriers, but has invested heavily in combat drones, stealth technology, and long-range guided missiles.

China's J-20 Stealth Fighter: Now with Chinese Engines?

Mark Episkopos

China is moving away from the use of Russia’s AL-31F engines on future J-20 stealth fighters, opting instead for a domestically-produced alternative.

Earlier this week, the South China Morning Post reported that future models of China’s fifth-generation J-20 stealth fighter will no longer ship with Russia’s AL-31F engines. The decision apparently stems from Russia’s insistence on tying future AL-31F engine sales to further Su-35 import deals.

“It’s impossible for China to rely on the Russian engine because Russia asked China to purchase more Su-35 fighter jets in exchange for the AL-31F engine deals,” an insider source told the Morning Post.

China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force was the first foreign customer to import the Su-35, one of Russia’s most advanced air superiority fighters, in a 2015 contract for the procurement of twenty-four units. But the PLAAF is reportedly no longer interested in acquiring additional Su-35’s, with Morning Post’s source alleging that China’s domestic aircraft industry has attained similar, if not superior, capabilities with the J-16 strike fighter: “The key problem is – except for its longer combat range advantage – the radar, navigation system and other electronic components on the Su-35s are inferior to Chinese aircraft like the J-16 strike fighter.”

J-16D Electronic Warfare Planes are Supporting China’s Pacific Dominance

by Sebastien Roblin

Here's What You Need to Remember: Beijing is not interested in foreign wars at this time. However, it does seek to alter the military balance of power in the Pacific Ocean. Aircraft like the J-16D suggest the People’s Liberation Army is interested in developing specialized aircraft that will offer China a full spectrum of air-warfare capabilities—just like those of the U.S. military.

The United States Navy’s EA-18G Growler electronic attack fighters are one of a small number of military aircraft types dedicated to the task of jamming—and potentially destroying—hostile radars that could guide deadly surface-to-air missiles against friendly aircraft. This mission is known as Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD). Basically, if a modern air force wants to attack an adversary with significant antiaircraft defenses, it needs an effective SEAD game to avoid insupportable losses.

The Growler is derived from the F-18 Super Hornet fighter, and is faster, more maneuverable, and more heavily armed than preceding aerial jamming platforms based on transport and attack planes. This allows the Growlers to contribute additional firepower to strike missions, keep up with fighter planes they are escorting, and potentially approach a bit closer to hostile air defenses.

China’s aviation engineers have never been too proud to copy a good idea from abroad, usually modified with “Chinese characteristics.” Perhaps it is not surprising that they appear to have devised a Growler of their own.

Should America’s Aircraft Carriers Fear Chinese Missiles?

by Sebastien Roblin

Here's What You Need to Remember: Today’s supercarriers will likely serve on for decades. However, the new threats arrayed against them, combined with the limited range of the current generation of carrier-based aircraft, suggest they may prove too vulnerable to operate within striking distance of near-peer opponents.

On May 31, 2017, the U.S. Navy accepted into service USS Gerald Ford, the first of up to four new fleet carriers. The massive 1,100-foot-long vessel will eventually embark around sixty aircraft, including twenty-four F-35 Lightning stealth fighters and another twenty to twenty-four FA-18 Super Hornets. It features a faster elevator for loading munitions, and new electromagnetic launch catapults (EMALS) and arresting hooks to increase the tempo of flight operations while reducing maintenance costs. All of these new perks come at roughly a $13 billion price tag—more than twice the cost of the preceding USS George H. W. Bush.

The United States’ nuclear-powered fleet carriers are currently without rival in the world, and their onboard Carrier Air Wings can unleash tremendous sustained firepower. They serve as potent symbols of American military power, and floating air bases for campaigns in Libya, Iraq and the Balkans.

But how would the supercarriers fare when taking on something tougher than a third-world despot? Advances in missile and submarine technology put in question whether such large and expensive ships are survivable when operating within striking distance of an enemy coastline.

Beijing’s New Toys in Myanmar

By Amara Thiha

A year after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to Myanmar, Foreign Minister Wang Yi is scheduled to arrive in the capital Naypyidaw today for a two-day official visit. The trip to Myanmar follows an African tour that has taken Wang to Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Botswana, Tanzania, and the Seychelles. The agenda of his Myanmar trip is yet to be confirmed, but the ongoing progress of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), along with COVID-19 diplomacy, is very likely to be high on the list.

First signed between China and Myanmar in 2018, the CMEC envisions the construction of a network of railways, roads, ports, and new cities running overland from China’s Yunnan province to the sea. Although numerous memorandum of agreements related to CMEC and Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have been in place for years, progress has lagged considerably. Indeed, progress on the CMEC seems to have been slowed further by Beijing’s pandemic-induced belt-tightening and the unprofitable nature of many of the infrastructure projects that fell under its aegis. This had prompted Beijing to adopt an alternative model of engagement in Myanmar: one that is more economically feasible, and that leverages its strategic assets, innovation, and technology to expand its sphere of influence, rather than focusing on infrastructure alone.

Iranian-backed Houthis Test Yemen’s New Unity Government

by Maya Carlin

At least twenty-two people were killed and dozens more were injured in an attack at the airport in the Yemeni city of Aden on December 30. One explosion was heard shortly after a plane carrying Yemen’s newly-formed government arrived from Saudi Arabia. International aid workers, officials and journalists were among those killed.

Yemen’s Information Minister accused Iranian-backed Houthi rebels of this “cowardly terrorist act.” Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik mirrored this sentiment in an interview with the Associated Press by stating “It is a major terrorist attack that was meant to eliminate the government. It was a message against peace and stability in Yemen.”

The new Yemeni unity government was sworn in five days prior to the Aden attack, ending months of violence and political rifts with southern separatists who are supported by the United Arab Emirates. The rift jeopardized the UAE’s relationship with Saudi Arabia that is fighting the Houthi rebels.

Yemen has been embroiled in a devastating civil war since 2014, when Iranian-backed Houthi insurgents seized control of Yemen’s northern Saada province. By 2015, the Shiite rebels took control of Yemen’s presidential palace, forcing President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his government to flee. Following the Houthi’s seizure of the palace, Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Arab states in the Gulf began an air campaign in addition to economically isolating the rebels. A military stalemate has followed for over five years, leading to over 100,000 fatalities and triggering the world’s most dire humanitarian crisis.

Enemies—and Partners—Will Get a Vote in the Middle East

This commentary is part of CSIS's Global Forecast 2021 essay series.

If there is anyone who thinks U.S. policy in the Middle East has been fundamentally right for the last 20 years, that person has been awfully quiet. The critiques are consistent. No one favors fighting “endless wars,” no one favors overcommitment, and no one disagrees that U.S. forces should be rightsized to the task at hand. There is agreement that U.S. policy has failed each and every one of those tests, but beyond that, the consensus breaks down.

Amid a robust discussion about the appropriate U.S. posture in the Middle East, one element is underemphasized, and sometimes it is entirely missing. Too often, people assume that the United States will fundamentally reorient its strategy toward the Middle East, and other powers will essentially roll with the punches. There is confidence that none of them will fundamentally reorient their own strategy in ways that affect the United States, in large part because reduced interests will insulate the United States from any impact.

Unfortunately, that’s not true. While U.S. engagement in the Middle East has grown, the world’s engagement in the region has grown as well. Allies and adversaries alike are tied into the Middle East’s status quo. When it shifts, they will shift, and when they feel effects, we will feel effects. The United States might feel it is done with the Middle East, but the reverse isn’t true.

The Capitol Insurrection: Our Altamont Moment


Like a shard of lightning illuminating a darkened landscape, a single event can bring an entire historical era into sharp focus. What had been half-hidden becomes nakedly exposed. Such a moment occurred on January 6 when supporters of President Trump assaulted, occupied, and ransacked the Capitol.

The insurrection of January 6 was this generation’s Altamont Moment. As did Altamont, it shattered delusions that never deserved to be taken seriously in the first place.

An infamous December 1969 rock concert in southern California that descended into mindless violence, Altamont demolished fantasies of the Sixties as an Age of Aquarius. Occurring just months after Woodstock had seemingly affirmed illusions of peace, love, and good dope giving birth to a new and more enlightened society, Altamont exposed the dark underside of such expectations. A post-mortem published in Rolling Stone accurately characterized Altamont as “the product of diabolical egotism, hype, ineptitude,” and sheer greed.

If you are looking for terms to describe America in our own age—not simply the age of Trump, but also of Iraq and Afghanistan, Amazon and Google, Fox News and Facebook, Antifa and Proud Boys, epic government dysfunction and the havoc wreaked by COVID-19—egotism, hype, ineptitude, and greed provide a good place to start.

Russia’s military in the 2020s

Pavel Luzin

Pavel Luzin on the challenges the Russian defence industry will face in the 2020s

The performance, trends and problems accumulated in previous years have left a mark on the Russian army as it marches through the 2020s. Problems include the gap between the declared and actual number of troops, fraught inter-regimental relations, and unresolved issues with command and communications systems. That is to say nothing of the economic and technical problems inherited by state-owned defence companies.

That said, troop mobility is constantly being improved. This was most recently shown in November 2020 when a peacekeeping contingent was deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh. Within a few days: almost 2,000 people arrived, along with cars, light armoured vehicles and helicopters.

In 2020, the Kremlin officially announced it had achieved the goals of modernising the armed forces set back in the early 2010s. Now, according to the authorities, it’s time to move forward. On the one hand, Moscow needs to continue procuring new arms, defence technology and military vehicles and upgrading its existing stocks. On the other, there is still the problem of limited resources, which has worsened over the past five or six years. By 2020, this became a qualitative, rather than a merely quantitative, problem. It is no longer only about how much the Kremlin spends on defence and how it allocates defence orders.

The prospect of increased army spending

Thirteen Days of Peril: Managing the Chaotic End of the Trump Presidency

Since a violent mob instigated by President Donald Trump surged into the U.S. Capitol on the afternoon of 6 January, a question that U.S. political leaders have arguably been dodging for too long became especially acute: how to safeguard the United States’ people and institutions, and for that matter global peace and security, from the U.S. president. While the thirteen days left in Trump’s administration may seem a modest period to weather, they could be a perilously long time given the extraordinary powers of the U.S. presidency. Members of the president’s Republican Party in Congress and in senior roles in his administration must use the influence afforded by their constitutional powers to rein in Trump for the next two weeks, which at a minimum will mean wielding a credible threat to expel him from office if he threatens to do more harm on the scale of the 6 January events. Then it will be up to the incoming Joe Biden administration to begin tackling the internal rifts and tensions that have led the world’s most powerful nation to this precarious place.

While the thirteen days left in Trump’s administration may seem a modest period to weather, they could be a perilously long time given the extraordinary powers of the U.S. presidency. 

When, in October 2020, Crisis Group wrote for the first time in our 25 years about the risk of election-related violence in the U.S., we highlighted risk factors that would spell danger in any country. These included years of political polarisation overlaid with issues of race and identity; the rise of armed groups with ideological agendas; the likelihood of a contested outcome; and above all President Trump himself, whose toxic rhetoric and willingness to court conflict in the service of his personal interests have no precedent in modern U.S. history. We also observed that the country’s mature democratic institutions could serve as guardrails that might, with some luck, keep it from heading over a cliff.

2020 Was Full Climate Disasters, but There's Reasons for Hope in 2021

by Matthew Hoffmann

Climate disasters started early in 2020 — and kept on coming.

The catastrophic fires in Australia in early 2020 were actually a holdover from 2019, but they were soon followed by flooding in Indonesia, a super-cyclone hitting the coast of India and Bangladesh and then more flooding, this time in Kenya and wide swaths of Central and West Africa.

Next came the record-breaking fires in the Brazilian Amazon, South America’s pantanal wetlands, California and Colorado, followed by a historic hurricane season in the Atlantic, including two apocalyptic hurricanes in Nicaragua and Honduras.

A popular refrain on social media notes that while 2020 was among the hottest on record and one of the worst years for climate disasters, it is also likely to be among the coolest and calmest for years to come. During a speech at Columbia University in December, UN Secretary General António Guterres put it bluntly: “The state of the planet is broken.”

‘Global Britain’: The UK in the Indo-Pacific

By Anisa Heritage and Pak K. Lee

Since 2016, the phrase “Global Britain” has been used to signal the ambition and intent of the United Kingdom to seek “an independent voice” in international diplomacy outside and beyond the European Union. But to date the phrase remains deliberately vague. While ambiguity might bring flexibility of action, will its focus be clear enough to deliver a strategy from which clear foreign policy priorities outside the EU can be set and delivered?

Unlike France, Germany, and the Netherlands, the U.K. has not announced an official Indo-Pacific strategy. Nonetheless, there are signs of increased British activity in the Indo-Pacific that endorse the U.K.’s three foreign policy objectives of promoting prosperity, protecting the rules-based international system, and being a “force for good” in the world. Questions remain as to whether these steps denote a significant reorientation of foreign policy, and more importantly whether regional states, especially China, which still regards Britain as a colonial state, welcome its return.

The World Beyond the EU

Latest Phase of Intra-Afghan Peace Talks Off to Slow Start

By Catherine Putz

On January 5, talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban resumed in Doha, Qatar. The talks have so far met expectations and are moving slowly, beset by widely different priorities and continued violence in Afghanistan.

Per reporting by TOLO News’ Sharif Amiry, the Afghan government negotiating team insists that a ceasefire must be a priority in the talks, while the Taliban want discussion of a ceasefire to come after an agreement on the shape of a future government.

This echoes reporting by the BBC’s Lyse Doucet back in September, shortly after the intra-Afghan talks began. Doucet reported at the time that, “For the Taliban, [a ceasefire] can only come once progress is made on the shape of a new order. There will be another semantic search for a ‘pause’ [in violence], a ‘reduction’, and the like.”

After nearly three months of negotiations, the two sides had a “breakthrough” and agreed on the rules and procedures for the talks in early December. Shortly thereafter, the two sides announced a three-week break before negotiations would resume, on January 5, on an agenda for the ongoing talks.

After Trump, Can Australia Trust the United States?

By Grant Wyeth

An escalating anxiety built around a question that is central to Australia’s foreign policy has been building for more than four years, ever since Donald Trump won the Republican nomination for president. Before Trump, Australia long felt comfortable enough not to ask a simple, but critical, question aloud: Can Australia trust the United States?

The events in Washington, D.C. on January 6, when an insurgent mob, inspired by the president, stormed the Capitol in an attempt to – at the very least – stop the certification of November’s presidential election results, reverberated across the Pacific. The revolt signaled something deeply disturbing to Australia: that its primary security partner, an intimate ally and old friend, was now clearly in the throes of deep internal distress.

After binding itself closely to the United States following World War II, Australia has had the confidence to remain agnostic about which political party – the Republicans or the Democrats – controlled the branches of government in Washington. Either party was considered a reliable and trustworthy actor, adhering to the same overarching liberal democratic principles and norms as Australia. Either party would continue to be committed to the mutually beneficial international rules that mid-sized countries like Australia require to negotiate the world and prosper. 

This assumption from Canberra no longer applies. 

Joe Biden and the Challenge of Ukraine

by Nicolai Petro

For the first time since the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych and the banning of his once-dominant Party of Regions, multiple surveys show that its successor, the pro-Russian “Opposition Platform-For Life,” has become the most popular political party in Ukraine, overtaking both president Volodymyr Zelensky’s “Servant of the People,” and former president Petro Poroshenko’s “European Solidarity.”

While such precipitous reversals of fortune are hardly unusual in Ukrainian politics—few presidents have managed to retain positive ratings after their first year—Zelensky’s decline is extraordinary because his party also has an unprecedented absolute majority in the country’s unicameral legislature.

Put simply, in contrast to all his predecessors, Zelensky had all the instruments of power aligned in his favor, including the support of the West which, under the watchful eye of the G7 Ambassadors’ Support Group for Ukraine, offered advice to his inexperienced team on whom it should hire and what policies it should implement. At long last, it seemed, all the stars were aligned for the implementation of a rapid-fire pro-West strategy, which the Zelensky’s supporters even referred to as “the turbo-regime.” What could possibly go wrong? 

Quite a lot, as it turns out. The combination of rare political ineptitude and perceived subservience to Western interests has resulted in a political meltdown not seen in Ukraine since the Orange Revolution of 2004. At that time, president Victor Yushchenko, another darling of the West, also entered office on a wave of popular enthusiasm, only to leave four years later with a popularity rating of less than 6 percent

Data: Governance and Geopolitics

Big data is often perceived as the black gold of the twenty-first century. Despite its fundamental differences with oil, it is indeed as critical, a fact tragically underscored by the lack of data on testing and tracking during the pandemic, especially in the United States. Yet the ways in which data is governed—or not—still are not well understood. Data, information, and big data overlap, and so do the issues involved in governing them. Those issues range from the seemingly prosaic (in what country will data centers be located?) to questions bearing on the nature of democracy itself (how will false news and hate speech be policed, and by whom?). To the extent that data is governed, that governance is a fractal of how the internet is governed—scattered, bottom-up, and driven by loose coordination among many actors, most of them in the private sector.

Given its importance, how data is collected, stored, protected, used, and transferred over national borders is becoming a geopolitical issue. Moreover, governing data inevitably runs into the differences in ideological visions of the internet and fundamental cultural divides. China’s insistence on internet sovereignty could be seen as a legitimate effort to control harmful or hateful information. Yet, from another perspective, it is a non-tariff barrier that limits foreign access to China's digital market.

How data is governed can be thought of along several lines of activity: legislating privacy and data use, regulating content, using antitrust laws to dilute data monopolies, self-regulating by the tech giants, regulating digital trade, addressing intellectual property rights (IPR) infringement, assuring cybersecurity, and practicing cyber diplomacy. Of these, antitrust, regulation, and privacy are most immediately in the spotlight, and are the focus of this commentary, but it will also touch briefly on the connections with other issues.

The Immediate Agenda

Big Gov vs. Big Tech: The Facebook Antitrust Case Raises Tensions

by Jeremy Shtern Ope Akanbi Steph Hill

Facebook made news this week by blocking U.S. President Donald Trump from posting to its platform. A seperate power struggle between government and Big Tech that will be far more consequential in the long term is unfolding in the background. The United States government seems prepared to rein in the social media giant and potentially break up the company.

In December 2020, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and attorneys general from 46 states launched antitrust proceedings. After months of theatrical congressional testimony by various tech CEOs, this development represents an escalation that could ultimately determine the balance of power between the U.S. government and Silicon Valley.

Antitrust is the American legal framework for competition law.

In the late 1800s, Standard Oil dominated the American oil refinery market and its chairman, John D. Rockefeller, was thought to have become the richest man who ever lived. In 1890, Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act, which was used to break up Standard Oil into smaller companies.

Apple and Hyundai: Teaming Up to Build the Ultimate Electric Car?

by Stephen Silver

The Apple car project, which goes by the name Project Titan, has been in the works for many years, mostly in secret, although Apple observers have often had to go by clues posed by job listings and vague public comments by Apple executives.

In December, Apple reshuffled the executives who were supervising the project. Then, the following week, Reuters reported that Apple was “targeting 2024 to produce a passenger vehicle that could include its own breakthrough battery technology.” Indications for a while, prior to then, was that Apple wasn’t making a standalone car, but was developing technology that would be used to partner with other manufacturers.

Other reports have stated that Apple will likely take longer than that, with Bloomberg News, earlier this week, reporting that development of the product was in “early stages,” and that the fruition of the project was “at least half a decade away,” which would place its arrival at around 2026.

Apple, per the report, “has a small team of hardware engineers developing drive systems, vehicle interior and external car body designs with the goal of eventually shipping a vehicle.”