Asia Maior. XXXI/2020. Asia in 2020: Coping with COVID-19 and other crises

Testata: Asia Maior • Anno di pubblicazione: 2020
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pp. 564, ISBN: 9788833138275
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doi:10.52056/9788833138282
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China 2020: The successful struggle against the COVID-19 pandemic and the Xinjiang question
Francesca Congiu

The year 2020, more than any other previous year, posed serious questions about the nature of the Chinese state and society and their relations with the world. China was the first global epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic and, in fighting it, demonstrated a highly effective management of the health emergency crisis. Differently from what happened in Europe or the United States, during the period under review daily life in China went back to normal. Nonetheless, this did not translate into a more positive view of China world-wide as, in the same period, international newspapers, magazines and international organizations dealt extensively with Beijing’s repressive politics in Xinjiang and the establishment of «re-education camps» there. This article, then, firstly analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of Beijing’s pandemic management, without overlooking its strategy of control and repression of public opinion. Secondly, it provides a synthetic overview of Beijing’s policies towards the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. In doing this an analysis of the latest reports on «re-education camps» and the Chinese government’s reaction to them is offered.

Keywords – COVID-19’s containment; Xinjiang conflict; China domestic politics.

Francesca Congiu | University of Cagliari | fcongiu@unica.it


China 2020: A foreign policy characterized by growing resilience, fading responsibility and increasing uncertainty
Silvia Menegazzi

In 2020 Chinese foreign policy had to contend with the global repercussions of the spread of an unprecedented virus causing a global pandemic, the SARS-CoV-2 (commonly known as COVID-19). Suspicions about the Chinese origin of the virus have strongly weakened the image of a responsible country much promoted by the diplomacy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the last decade. Chinese leaders were obliged to recognize that in the West, the number of those objecting to the Chinese political system is on the rise. In spite of China’s aid to Western countries to fight the Coronavirus crisis, initiatives to oppose China’s authoritarian resilience and its growing political relevance in world affairs were also launched or revitalized, such as the International Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and the Quadrilateral Security Alliance (Quad). On top of that, other issues contributed to affect China’s foreign policy in the course of 2020: the growing estrangement between Washington and Beijing; the current uncertainties of China’s relations with Europe and an endless pressure derived from the competition with great powers in the Indo-Pacific region.

Keywords – Chinese Foreign Policy; COVID-19; United States; Europe; Indo-Pacific.

Silvia Menegazzi | Luiss Guido Carli University | smenegazzi@luiss.it


Korean peninsula 2020: Overcoming the challenges of covid-19
Marco Milani

The COVID-19 pandemic had disruptive effects on the Korean peninsula, as well as in the rest of the world. Deploying two very different strategies, both Koreas were able to spare their populations from the most tragic consequences in terms of public health. However, the pandemic had important effects on the social and economic systems of both Koreas and also on their mutual relationship and their relations with the rest of the world. In South Korea, after an initial localized outbreak, the government was able to implement early on a very effective strategy based on extensive testing, tracing and social distancing that prevented the situation from escalating out of control. The positive management of the pandemic led to a landslide victory for the party of President Moon Jae-in at the legislative election in April. In the second half of the year, however, existing tensions in domestic politics started to re-emerge. North Korea faced the challenge of the new pandemic with an almost immediate isolation of the country from the rest of the world and the imposition of severe quarantine measures. This strategy prevented the spreading of the virus within the country and preserved the fragile national health system; however, the costs of this isolation, combined with existing international sanctions and natural disasters, led to severe economic problems. Inter-Korean and international relations remained limited during 2020, mostly because of the global consequences of the pandemic. Despite the efforts of President Moon to promote dialogue and cooperation on the peninsula, Pyongyang remained indifferent to these calls and displayed disappointment for the current management of inter-Korean relations through provocations and symbolic acts. The combined effect of the pandemic restrictions and the wait for the US presidential elections dominated international relations for both Koreas. South Korea worked to maintain positive relations with Washington despite some unresolved issues, while North Korea refrained from provocations aimed at the United States.

Keywords – South Korea; North Korea; COVID-19; Inter-Korean relations; South Korea’s legislative elections; Kim Jong Un; Moon Jae-in; Korea-US relations.

Marco Milani | University of Bologna | marco.milani6@unibo.it


Japan 2020: Abe’s well-laid plans go awry
Corey Wallace & Giulio Pugliese

Like elsewhere, the COVID-19 pandemic caused substantial disruptions in Japan. While generous fiscal spending mitigated the pandemic’s economic fallout, and Japan is poised in 2021 to rebound from its year-on-year 4.8% fall in GDP, there was significant political fallout in 2020. The postponement of the Olympic Games, the Abe government’s perceived inability to tackle the pandemic, and the (re)surfacing of political scandals led to Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister popularity plummeting. The re-emergence of Abe’s health problems then precipitated his abrupt resignation. This ushered in the premiership of Suga Yoshihide, who promised to enact structural reforms and ambitious digitalization and environmental programmes, while also promising to continue significant elements of Abe’s policy agenda. Internationally, COVID-19 accelerated US-China tensions and, in connection to that, China’s regional assertiveness. This perceived assertiveness as well as China’s political involution and human rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, in turn, hardened the Japanese government’s position vis-à-vis Beijing. This happened despite Abe’s early 2020 efforts towards hosting a state visit by the Chinese president. Instead, the year ended with a «Quad» meeting at the ministerial level, hosted in Tokyo, rather than an entente with China. At the same time, Japan deepened its «Indo-Pacific» engagement with important European nations as well as the European Union itself. It did so while doubling down on economic security initiatives that strengthened supply chain resiliency and provided telecommunication alternatives to Chinese initiatives, thereby restraining Chinese strategic influence. Security cooperation with the United States – through joint development of weapons systems, such as a new Japanese fighter, and close coordination in space, cyber and electromagnetic warfare – continued unabated in 2020.

Keywords – COVID-19, Suga Yoshihide, Free and Open Indo-Pacific, Japanese foreign and security policy, economic security, O-RAN

Corey Wallace | Kanagawa University | wallace@kanagawa-u.ac.jp

Giulio Pugliese | University of Oxford and European University Institute | giulio.pugliese@nissan.ox.ac.uk


Hong Kong 2020: The downfall of «one country two systems»
Sheldon Wong

In this watershed year the Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region (HKSAR) was fundamentally reshaped by the concatenation of two major events, namely Covid-19 and the roll out of the National Security Law (NSL). While Beijing had already set in train advanced plans for the «second takeover», with mass protest snuffed out the arrival of the global pandemic provided perfect subterfuge for ushering in the NSL. The law effectively ended the city’s «high degree of autonomy», belying the strategic gamble behind One Country Two Systems (OCTS) that Hong Kong would change China before China changed Hong Kong. As the reification of the central government’s «comprehensive jurisdiction» the NSL acted as a vehicle for the institutional and constitutional repurposing of OCTS towards a system of direct rule, adding to the statute books four capacious new criminal offences qua instruments of lawfare and psychological warfare. Having rolled back the separation of powers through executive capture, co-opting the police and subduing the legislature, a full-frontal assault was launched on the city’s independent judiciary. By the end of the year, OCTS had been hollowed out to the point of existing in name only to legitimise the exercise of raw political power. If not already dead, it was moribund. While reactive measures such as sanctions, lifeboat policies, human rights scrutiny and moral suasion manifestly failed to deter a more assertive Beijing under Xi Jinping from exploiting what it perceived to be a closing window of opportunity to pursue revisionist objectives in Hong Kong, the second handover shaped wider regional and global geopolitics, deepening the strategic competition between China and the US and its allies with some describing events in Hong Kong as the trigger for a «new cold war».

Keywords – Hong Kong; China; National Security Law; One Country Two Systems; Comprehensive Jurisdiction; Direct Rule.

Sheldon Wong | Asia Maior – An Italian think tank on Asia | asiamaior@gmail.com


Taiwan 2020: Crossroads of Covid-19 international politics
Aurelio Insisa

The year 2020 started with President Tsai winning a second term and the DPP obtaining once again a parliamentary majority in the general elections held on 11 January. By the end of the year, Taiwan emerged as one of the few polities able to effectively put the COVID-19 pandemic under control. More impressively, it was able to do so without resorting to lockdown strategies, relying instead on timely decision-making and effective tracing, testing, and treating. Taiwan’s success, in turn, amplified the island’s relevance in Asia-Pacific international politics. Foreign support for expanding its access to international organizations, and especially the WHO in light of the pandemic, reached new heights, but it met Beijing’s vehement pushback. Chinese military pressure, a constant across the Strait since 2016, reached new heights, as the PLA Air Force routinized operations within Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone. The policies of the outgoing Trump administration, which accelerated the freefall of Sino-American relations and continued to dramatically expand the scope of Washington’s relations with Taiwan, further exacerbated cross-Strait relations. The worsening security environment, however, did not hinder a Tsai administration buoyed by the successful management of the pandemic, economic growth, and widespread refusal of China’s strategy for unification among the public. Conversely, the KMT, Taiwan’s major position party, after a brief flirt with populist politics with the failed presidential candidature of Han Kuo-yu, continued to struggle under the new leadership of Johnny Chiang. Post-electoral calls for reforming the party and move its China policy away from the 1992 Consensus did not produce any meaningful change.

Keywords – Taiwan; cross-strait relations; COVID-19 pandemic.

Aurelio Insisa | The University of Hong Kong| insisa@hku.hk


The Philippines 2020: The gamble of the populist leadership
Yvan Ysmael T. Yonaha & Esther Mary L. Calvo

The year 2020 was an eventful one for the Philippines. Still recovering from the aftermath of the Taal volcano eruption, the country soon faced a public health crisis. Contrary to Duterte’s belief that the new coronavirus (COVID-19) would just die a natural death, the pandemic turned out to be one of the greatest challenges the Philippine government has ever had to face. As the country’s cases increased rapidly, the government, handicapped by the long-standing institutional problems in the country’s educational and healthcare sectors, scrambled to implement a national lockdown to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. After struggling to contain the pandemic, it then opened the economy prematurely. At the same time, the country witnessed a power struggle for the Speakership of the House of Representatives as well as massive corruption in the state health insurance agency, PhilHealth. But what caught the public off-guard was Duterte’s UN address upholding the Permanent Court Arbitration’s ruling on the West Philippine Sea; more importantly, the unexpected passage of the repressive Anti-Terror Law that originally was not considered an urgent legislation. Despite public outrage over the mismanagement of the crisis and the passage of the Anti-Terror Law, Duterte’s approval and trust ratings remained unscathed.

Keywords – Philippines, COVID-19 pandemic, Duterte, populism, illiberalism

Yvan Ysmael T. Yonaha | Ateneo de Manila University and Chinese University of Hong Kong | yvanyonaha@link.cuhk.edu.hk

Esther Mary L. Calvo | Lund University | esther.calvo@svet.lu.se


Timor-Leste in 2020: Containing the pandemic in a changing political environment
Rui Graça Feijó

In 2020 Timor-Leste became a successful case of managing to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to the early diligent action undertaken by the state authorities, albeit with significant popular resistance to the harsh measures imposed. Following a brief introduction, the second section of this article deals with the manner in which Timor-Leste faced the pandemic and ended the year without a single fatality. The impact of the pandemic, however, was severe on several fronts. The third section examines the political impact of the realignment of partisan forces that sustain the government; the eviction of Xanana Gusmão, the charismatic leader of the Resistance, from the inner circle of power and the ensuing political polarity along new lines. It also examines the redefinition of the status of the president of the Republic in the political system emerging from two sources: the partisan links and an important statement by the Constitutional Court. The fourth part delves into the economic performance, given that the Petroleum Fund was able to sustain extraordinary withdrawals to finance ad hoc measures to combat the pandemic as well as provide the needs of a country that lived for most of the year without a regular budget. Public spending being critical to the economic performance, it comes as no surprise that GDP contracted by almost 7%. While new outlooks of economic policy have been announced, the sluggishness of previous options was still apparent in 2020. The last section deals with international relations and miscellaneous comments on the perception of Timor-Leste in the international arena, including relations with the People’s Republic of China, Indonesia and Australia, and the vision expressed at the UN Annual General Assembly.

Keywords − Timor-Leste, COVID-19 pandemic; changing political alliances; presidential powers; Xanana Gusmão; economic performance; international relations.

Rui Graça Feijó | Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra Institute for Contemporary History, NOVA University of Lisboa | ruifeijo@gmail.com


Malaysia 2020: Democratic backsliding amid the covid-19 pandemic
Saleena Saleem

The pernicious effects of political polarisation and unresolved intra-coalition differences resulted in political party defections that contributed to the fall of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government and the tenuous position of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government that replaced it. Domestic politics through much of 2020 was marked by the subsequent power struggles both between the PH and PN coalitions and between PN coalition partners, Bersatu and UMNO. As the socio-economic pains of the COVID-19 pandemic prolonged, the trust deficit between the people and elected politicians widened. The turn of events in 2020 signalled an abrupt halt to the tentative steps Malaysia had been making to improve its democracy.

Keywords – political polarisation; political party defection; democratic backsliding; Malaysia.

Saleena Saleem | University of Liverpool | ssaleem@liverpool.ac.uk


Myanmar 2020: Elections in a pandemic
Matteo Fumagalli

The year 2020 in Myanmar was not substantively different from that of so many other countries. The year was dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, its socio-economic impact and the government’s attempt to cushion its effect and fight against it. The authorities sought to seal off the country from the spread of the Coronavirus from March onwards and managed to contain the first wave quite successfully. After the summer, though, the country experienced a surge in cases and deaths, also among migrant workers abroad. In their efforts to provide relief and support to households and businesses, the authorities were assisted by donors, international financial institutions and key allies such as China. Yet, the impact was severe. Two other issues were also of great significance. Parliamentary elections were held on 8 November. The National League for Democracy (NLD) secured another landslide victory again, just like in 2015. Aung San Suu Kyi’s star status domestically remains unchanged and was boosted by her appearance at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) hearings in 2019 and during the pandemic. At the same time, more than a vote for the NLD per se, the vote appeared to be the reflection of what the party stood against: the military. The Tatmadaw’s protests during the campaign and after the elections lay the ground for an escalation of the tensions between the two. The clashes in Rakhine state between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar army intensified up to the point that the parliamentary and local elections had to be cancelled in some townships. A Japan-brokered ceasefire later in the year opened the way for negotiations and gives some cause for optimism for reducing hostilities and violence.

Keywords – Elections; NLD; Rakhine; conflict; COVID-19.

Matteo Fumagalli | University of St Andrews, Scotland | mf29@st-andrews.ac.uk


Bangladesh 2019-2020: Issues of democracy, disasters, development
Silvia Tieri

In 2019-2020, the Awami League maintained its grasp on power by resorting to repressive measures. Political dissent was silenced through both legal and extrajudicial means. Poor civil rights protection confirmed that negative trends already emerged in previous years worsened further, as the country continued losing its democratic features. Bangladeshi economy kept growing, but in 2020 the pandemic affected its current and projected growth rate, and the unemployment and inequality indexes. It also prompted the Government to adopt emergency policies for economic relief. Furthermore, amid the COVID-19 outbreak, the country was struck by catastrophic cyclone Amphan and monsoon floods. These added to the damages caused in 2019 by seasonal floods and cyclones Fani and Bulbul. All such events highlighted the vulnerability of Bangladesh’s economic growth, human security, and socio-economic equality to external shocks and climate change. Reducing gender violence proved challenging. However, the country proceeded towards its Least Developed Country (LDC) graduation targets. China remained Bangladesh’s main partner in the fields of infrastructure, trade, and defence. Relations with India were intense but marred by old and new issues, including border killings, water sharing, and India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Remarkably, Pakistan signalled its intention to revive relations with Dhaka. Lastly, while Bangladesh deserved commendation for it continued hosting one million Rohingya refugees with tremendous efforts, it also pursued their controversial relocation from Cox’s Bazar to Bashan Char. Relations with Myanmar deteriorated as attempts to repatriate the refugees to Rakhine failed, favouring China’s and the Organization of Islamic Conference’s (OIC) involvement in the crisis.

Keywords – Bangladesh; development; disaster; freedom; gender violence; Hasina; human rights; LDC graduation; Mujib Borsho; Rohingya.

Silvia Tieri | King’s College London | silvia.tieri@kcl.ac.uk


India 2020: Under the COVID hammer
Diego Maiorano

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit India, its economy was going through a difficult phase. This left the government ill prepared to tackle the pandemic and its economic dislocation. Furthermore, India’s health infrastructure – suffering from decades of under investments – was at serious risk of being rapidly overwhelmed. The government decided to impose a strict lockdown, which brought to a halt most economic activity. The decision to give virtually no advance notice left millions of migrant workers stranded in India’s large metropolis without a source of income, shelter and a means of transportation to reach their hometowns and villages. When tens of millions of them started walking towards their home, a humanitarian catastrophe ensued. The lockdown did not stop contagion, as active cases continued to rise sharply. The halt of economic activity resulted in widespread destruction of livelihoods, accompanied by alarming increases in school dropouts and nutritional deficits. In the last part of the year, the economy appeared to be recovering, as the pandemic was brought under control.

Keywords – India; COVID-19; lockdown; economic recovery.

Diego Maiorano | National University of Singapore ISAS (Institute of South Asian Studies) | dmaiorano@nus.edu.sg


India 2020: The deepening crisis of democracy
Michelguglielmo Torri

The following article, focussed on the analysis of the ongoing crisis of Indian democracy in the year 2020, is articulated in two parts. The first, after a synthetic summing up of how the crisis started in 2019, is an overview of the main developments which characterized the struggle against and for democracy in the year under review. The crushing of the anti-CAA/NRC democratic movement, the persecution of minorities, the harassing of NGOs, the attacks on journalists and the continuing repression in Kashmir are summarised. The celebration of the transformation of India from a secular democracy into a Hindu Rashtra through the inauguration of the construction of the Ram mega temple in Ayodhya is remembered. This first part ends by discussing the unexpected rise of the Indian farmers’ anti-government movement in the concluding months of the year. The second part of the article is a case study of the repression of the anti-CAA/NRC movement. It is argued that it was pursued through fascist-like violence on the part of Hindutva thugs, abetted by the police. This culminated in the Delhi riots-turned-pogrom of February. In spite of all, the anti-CAA/NRC movement continued up to the explosion of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, which made the continuation of street manifestations and sit-ins impossible. The analysis continues through the examination of the veritable witch-hunt carried by the police, on the basis of fabricated evidence, against representative members of the anti-CAA/NRC movement and intellectuals known for their criticism of the Modi government. In the conclusion it is argued that the political set-up prevailing in India is not a full-fledged democracy any more. Rather, it is a hybrid system which, below an outwardly democratic appearance, badly conceals its highly authoritarian nature.

Keywords – Citizenship Amendment Act; National Register of Citizenship; war on democracy; Delhi riots 2020; Delhi pogrom 2020; persecuting minorities; criminalizing dissent.

Michelguglielmo Torri | University of Turin | mg.torri@gmail.com


India 2020: Confronting China, aligning with the US
Michelguglielmo Torri

During 2020, India’s foreign policy was unaffected by the COVID-19 and dominated by two key developments, on whose analysis this article is focussed. One was the turning for the worse of the India-China relation, of which the heating up of the Himalayan border, which saw clashes between the militaries of the two countries, was at the same time cause and effect. The other key foreign policy development in the year under review was the tightening of the India-US connection, which, in 2020, increasingly looked as a de facto anti-China military alliance. The India-China confrontation is tackled by dwelling on three points. The first is the history of the incidents and clashes along the Himalayan border, whose seriousness is proven by the fact that, for the first time in 45 years, there were losses of human life. Then, a main objective cause of turbulence along the China-India border, namely the undefined nature of the de facto border (the so-called LAC, Line of Actual Control) is examined. Finally, the two mirror-like explanations of the border crisis are scrutinised. Then, the focus of the analysis moves on, zeroing on the India-US connection. It highlights the bizarre situation which, during the year under review, saw the worsening of the economic connection between the two nations – a direct result of US President Trump «America First» policy – coupled, however, by their growing military closeness. The fact that this apparently contradictory process resulted in something akin to a de facto military alliance, and the institutional developments that fleshed it out are examined. Finally, the fact is underlined that, even if largely unrecognised by Indian politicians and public opinion, the tightening of the US-India military alliance resulted in India’s loss, or at least drastic diminution of its vaunted «strategic autonomy». As a proof of this, the unravelling of the India-Iran strategic ties is examined.

Keywords – India’s foreign policy; India-China Himalayan border; India-China tensions; LAC; India-US connection; India’s strategic autonomy; India-Iran strategic ties.

Michelguglielmo Torri | University of Turin | mg.torri@gmail.com


Sri Lanka 2019-2020: Extremism, elections and economic uncertainty at the time of Covid-19
Shamara Wettimuny

Sri Lanka in 2019 and 2020 was characterised by Islamist violence and its aftermath, a presidential and general election, and COVID-19. This article traces the internal, economic and foreign policies of Sri Lanka chronologically and thematically across the two years under examination. These policies were deeply interconnected during two of the most tumultuous years in Sri Lanka’s recent history. The impact of the tragic Easter Sunday bombings, the presidential and general elections, and the pandemic had a significant bearing on Sri Lanka’s economic well-being and its foreign policy trajectory. Following the general election in August 2020, the new government passed the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution, which removed democratic checks and balances on the powers of the executive president. Meanwhile, restrictions on religious freedoms in response to COVID-19 triggered widespread protests, and anti-minority hostility and discrimination. The economy, which was stagnant at the beginning of 2019 went into decline after successive internal and external shocks. Foreign policy was adjusted with changes in government, and in response to great power competition in South Asia. Sri Lanka, at the end of 2020, was in a more precarious situation than it was before 2019, in terms of the state of its democracy, economic stability, public health, and inter-communal relations.

Keywords – Easter Sunday; extremism; elections; COVID-19; constitutional reform; Sri Lanka.

Shamara Wettimuny | University of Oxford | shamara.wettimuny@bnc.ox.ac.uk


Pakistan 2020: The PTI government amidst COVID-19 pandemic
Marco Corsi

Austerity measures tied to disbursement of the bailout programme that Pakistan agreed upon with the International Monetary Fund in 2019 helped Islamabad progress towards macroeconomic stabilisation. After the COVID-19 outbreak hit the country in February 2020, related disruptions strained economic activity and put pressure on Pakistan’s fiscal position. The Government of Prime Minister Imran Khan came under criticism for mishandling the health crisis. The intervention and the progressively prominent role played by the Army in coordinating the response to the pandemic resulted in a decline of the spread of the virus. It also showed that the military establishment had extended its control over aspects of the jurisdiction of civil power. Commentators defined Pakistan as a «hybrid martial law regime», while opposition parties joined forces against the Government over allegations of mismanagement and military interferences. US-China rivalry and the post-9/11 security challenges that have impacted South Asia characterised Pakistan’s foreign policy. A priority for Pakistan is to continue benefitting from its relationships with Beijing and Washington, while containing the international pressure it is under to restrain alleged involvement with terrorism. The role played by Pakistan in the peace talks with the Taliban was welcomed by the USA. Tense relationships with India over Kashmir continued in 2020, while frictions arose with Saudi Arabia as Islamabad is diversifying its international partnerships.

Keywords – Army; austerity; COVID-19; economy; Pakistan Democratic Movement.

Marco Corsi | Asia Maior – An Italian think tank on Asia | macorsi@gmail.com


Afghanistan 2020: The US-Taliban peace deal, intra-Afghan talks and regional implications
Filippo Boni

The year 2020 was a landmark year for Afghanistan. The country witnessed the signing of the peace deal between the US and the Taliban as well as the beginning of intra-Afghan negotiations that, for the first time since 2001, brought together representatives from the Taliban and the Government of Afghanistan. These two political milestones occurred in parallel to the long-delayed final announcement of the September 2019 Presidential elections results. This was followed by a power-sharing agreement signed on 17 May, which ended the political impasse deriving from the contested electoral outcome. In Afghanistan, like in all other countries in the world, the COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on the country’s economy and on people’s livelihood. Despite a prompt government response and the implementation of some very tough lockdown rules, Afghanistan’s weak health system and very limited testing capacity meant that the real scale of the negative impact of the pandemic was massive, albeit difficult to capture. With regards to Afghanistan’s international relations, the year under examination was characterized by continuity in the approach that regional powers, Pakistan, India and above all China, had towards Kabul. Each of these countries has continued supporting their preferred actors on the Afghan political scene, but the peace deal between the US and the Taliban has put Pakistan in a strong position, given the long-standing support that Islamabad provided to the fundamentalist Islamic militia.

Keywords – Afghanistan 2020; US-Taliban peace deal; power-sharing; peace process.

Filippo Boni | The Open University | Filippo.Boni@Open.ac.uk


Iran 2019-2020: The double impact of crippling sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic
Luciano Zaccara

Two main external developments marked the years 2019 and 2020 in Iran: the unilateral sanctions re-imposed by the United States in late 2018 after abandoning the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and the COVID-19 Pandemic that had its first case in Iran in February 2020. The heavy burden represented by the combination of both situations severely affected Iran’s economy, its domestic policies and its foreign relations.

Keywords – Iran Politics; Hassan Rouhani; maximum pressure; JCPOA; COVID-19; HOPE.

Luciano Zaccara | Qatar University | luciano.zaccara@qu.edu.qa


Kazakhstan 2020: Between a rock and a hard place
Paolo Sorbello

With its society deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and its economy struggling due to low oil prices, 2020 was the year in which Kazakhstan’s government was compelled to continuously adopt emergency measures. This contributed to a looming uncertainty about the country’s ability to cope with the multiple crises constantly affecting it. Throughout this essay, the COVID-19 topic permeates all aspects of Kazakhstan’s politics, from the internal measures undertaken to curtail its spread, to the effects of the lockdown on the economy and relations with other countries. Internationally, Kazakhstan’s attempts to build a positive global image were threatened by the release of a sequel to Borat, the US satirical film portraying Kazakhstan as a backward country, as well as by slanderous misinformation from the Chinese Embassy in Nur-Sultan. Old refrains claiming that Kazakhstan’s northern regions belong to Russia were repeated by Russian nationalist journalists and politicians, highlighting the precarious relationship between the two neighbours.

Keywords – COVID-19; oil crises; elections; protests; healthcare; nation branding; diplomacy.

Paolo Sorbello | Ca’ Foscari University of Venice | paolo.sorbello@unive.it