Security Exchange News

Security Exchange Newsletter | January | Asia

31 January 2020

China - At least 213 people have died and almost 10,000 people have been infected by the novel coronavirus (2019-nVoC) which first broke out in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. The virus is understood to have originated from a seafood market which dealt in the illegal wild animal trade. Genetic analysis suggests the virus was transmitted to humans from snakes, which in turn are thought to have caught the virus from bats.

The Wuhan coronavirus presents flu-like symptoms including a fever, a cough, or difficulty breathing and has an incubation period of between two to 14 days. Most cases appear to be mild with more severe symptoms reported in patients with weakened immune systems, older people, and those with long-term conditions – those who have died all appear to have suffered pre-existing health conditions. So far no deaths have been reported outside of China; however, confirmed cases of the virus have been reported in at least 21 other countries (Australia, Cambodia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, UAE, UK, USA, Vietnam). Hundreds of foreign nationals are being evacuated from Wuhan by their respective governments, with Japan, the US, the UK and the EU among those repatriating their citizens. Generally, passengers are only allowed on evacuation flights after passing health screening and will be subject to another test upon arrival, where there may be the possibility of being quarantined. Most foreign travel advice websites are warning against “all but essential travel” to China.

Wuhan is a major domestic and international transport hub and has since been placed on transportation lockdown following the outbreak, along with much of the surrounding Hubei province, in an unprecedented attempt to quarantine more than 50 million people. Most Asian and Western countries have implemented health screening measures for air travellers from China and some major airlines have suspended all direct flights. China has also introduced port-of-exit screening to identify those already exhibiting symptoms and prevent them from leaving the country. The spread of the disease has been exacerbated by coinciding with the Chinese Lunar New Year, which led to the mass movement of people in and out of China as millions travelled to see family for the holidays, prompting the Chinese government to extend the New Year holiday period by three days until Sunday 02 February, in an attempt to contain the further spread of the disease.

Human-to-human transmission of the disease was confirmed by Chinese officials earlier this month. Wearing face masks has become a popular way in many countries around the world to prevent infection; however, such masks do little to protect against disease transmitted by touch and many virologists have warned that, although they can be effective in helping prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, there is scepticism over their effectiveness against airborne viruses. Masks also need to be worn correctly and changed frequently if they are to work properly. Health officials have strongly recommended regularly washing hands with warm soap and water and to avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

Although a number of people have recovered following treatment, the virus is expected to continue to spread over the course of the next few weeks and the death toll will likely continue to increase without a specific cure or vaccine. There is a significant list of outstanding questions and unknowns concerning the virus which could dictate how rapidly the outbreak spreads, including how deadly it is, how contagious it is, and whether people can carry and transmit the virus without showing symptoms (asymptomatic transmission) – although the latter has rarely been a driving force behind such outbreaks. Despite a large number of confirmed cases, few details regarding patients and individual cases have been released thus far. It’s believed most cases involve people either from Wuhan or who had close contact with someone who had been there. On Thursday 30 January, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared an international emergency over the outbreak, citing the potential impact of the virus in countries with weaker health systems as a serious cause for concern.

The progress of the outbreak is likely to be slowed by the readiness and preparedness of international public health services alongside quarantine measures; however, many health officials fear the virus is unlikely to be contained and that it is only a matter of time before confirmed cases are reported in lesser developed countries, such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, or Yemen.

Hong Kong elections - Legislative Council elections are due to take place later this year in Hong Kong. The election comes in the context of recent widespread violent unrest which caused severe disruption throughout Hong Kong for several consecutive months in 2019. The city has been gripped by disruptive unrest since last March after protests broke out against the controversial extradition bill. Although the bill was eventually shelved before being officially withdrawn, the protests had already evolved into a wider anti-government and pro-democracy movement, calling for the removal of pro-Beijing Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam as well as investigations into police brutality against protesters. Despite a recent lull in protests, sporadic demonstrations still regularly occur and are expected to continue over the next year.

Lam has so far ignored calls for her to resign and currently continues to serve as Chief Executive for Hong Kong; however, whether the Legislative Council elections will go ahead in September as planned amidst the unrest has been thrown into question after violent demonstrations targeting the Legislative Council buildings forced parliamentary proceedings to be suspended last year. Furthermore, November's district council elections were severely disrupted by unrest, with pro-democracy supporters clashing with pro-Beijing supporters. Another question hanging over the upcoming election is how China will choose to exert influence over the legislative election proceedings. Only half of the 70 legislative council seats are elected through popular vote, with the other half elected through mechanisms which Beijing can influence by keeping pro-democracy candidates off the Hong Kong ballot - effectively giving them the power to control the outcome of the election. If Beijing chooses to postpone or influence the Legislative Council elections in an anti-democratic way, it would likely be a move met with heavy international criticism and could risk triggering further protests.

India-Pakistan - In the last year, tensions in the Kashmir region have risen following recent developments surrounding separatist militancy and autonomy. Both countries claim all of the Kashmir region but only control parts of it, separated by the Line of Control (LoC). In February 2019, a suicide bomb attack killed over 40 Indian paramilitary personnel in Kashmir, having been carried out by the Pakistan-based Kashmir separatist terrorist group, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM). In retaliation, Indian fighter jets bombed a ‘terrorist camp’ across the border in Pakistan’s Azad Kashmir In August 2019, resulting in a military confrontation. Both sides ultimately agreed on a peace offer in March, ending hostilities and vowing to fight terrorism together.

However, in August 2019, the Indian government abolished Article 370 of the constitution – revoking the autonomy of the disputed Muslim-majority Kashmir region. The measure came into force immediately and an extensive, military-enforced, communications blackout was enforced in the region, triggering violent unrest and thousands of arrests – mostly prominent local leaders or politicians. The Hindu governing party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), claimed that the measure was in response to rising militancy in the region. The measure was heavily criticised by the Pakistani government and cross-border clashes soon escalated along the LoC. Soldiers are still deployed there and the communications blackout is still in effect in parts of Indian-administered Kashmir, despite recent UN rulings that the blackout violated human rights and Pakistan’s PM, Imran Kham, has continually called for the blackout to be lifted. Tensions further escalated in December 2019, when the Indian government announced the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) – granting citizenship to non-Muslims from three neighbouring countries. Massive anti-CAA protests were sparked across India in response to the law, which was criticised for being anti-Muslim and for allegedly violating India’s secular constitution. Pakistan also opposed the law and sympathised with protesters again, before calling for international intervention.

Several countries, including Turkey, Israel, and the US, have offered to mediate between the two nuclear-armed neighbours; however, no such offers have been unilaterally taken up thus far. Earlier this month, it was reported that, following a failure to evoke global action (arguably due to Pakistan’s history of providing a safe haven for anti-Indian and Islamist militant groups), Pakistan's PM has decided to order the Indian government to withdraw its High Commissioner to Pakistan. It was also announced that Pakistan’s Independence Day on 14 August will also be observed as a ‘day of solidarity’ with Kashmiris, while India’s Independence Day on 15 August will be observed in Pakistan as a ‘Black Day’.

Over the next year, further cross-border clashes are likely to be reported as both sides continue to violate the ceasefire along the LoC, which was agreed in 2003. Both India and Pakistan regularly engage in such scuffles, often accusing the other of unprovoked firing and claiming to have only responded as a retaliatory measure. Whether the heads of state will agree another peace offer remains yet to be seen, as tensions could continue to sour over the Kashmir issue. Rapprochement is still a possibility; however, India’s course of action over the continued blackout in Kashmir and the CAA has the potential to decide the trajectory for relations between the two neighbours.

Afghanistan - The political and security situation in Afghanistan remains unstable going into 2020. In recent years, the Taliban has begun to engage in peace talks with the US; however, little substantial progress has been made and the country is still riddled with violent conflict. A report by the BBC suggests that by the third quarter of 2019, an estimated 2,307 people have died in 611 security incidents across Afghanistan. These figures have been challenged by both the Taliban and the Afghan government, but nevertheless they provide an insight into the ongoing violence despite apparent peace talks. The report was published shortly after US President Donald Trump declared peace talks as ‘dead’ in September 2019 following a deadly Taliban attack in Kabul, which left a US soldier dead along with 11 others. The two sides are thought to have come close to a withdrawal deal shortly before talks broke down.

In January 2020, the Taliban offered the US a temporary 7-10-day ceasefire. The offer is seen as a crucial development in the peace process and could be the first step towards an eventual peace deal which would allow the US to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and bring about an end to the 18-year war. The offer came just before a US military plane crashed in Taliban territory in the Ghazni province. The US denied that the plane was shot down by the enemy fire, but few details regarding the casualties have been confirmed yet and there have been reports of clashes between the security forces and Taliban insurgents during attempts to reach the crash site. It's feared the crash has the potential to derail possible talks, but the US could still choose to accept the offer of a ceasefire, in which case peace talks between the US and the Taliban are expected to resume.

However, restarting talks between the US and the Taliban is just the first hurdle, to be followed by the greater obstacle of intra-Afghan talks. The Taliban has consistently refused to negotiate with the Afghan government and, to further complicate things, the authority of the Afghan government is up for debate as the official result of the September 2019 general election is still pending. Any kind of peace deal will also ultimately rely on the Taliban acting in the interests of peace and their possible inclusion in power-sharing in Kabul could be compromised by the group’s long-term goal to govern Afghanistan absolutely. A lasting peace agreement will only survive if the Taliban agree to take a backseat in running the country, which seems unlikely given their extremist agenda. On the other hand, it’s argued that the war has reached a point of stalemate, with neither side making significant gains over the other. Despite having entered into talks with the US, the Taliban arguably despise the US forces more than the Afghan government, viewing the US presence in Afghanistan as an occupation, and appear to be willing to work with the Afghan government in exchange for a US military withdrawal, a ceasefire, and representation in parliament. In the event of a peace deal, the Taliban are also expected to break from al Qaeda and have promised to help prevent Afghanistan from being used as a terrorist safe haven to plot attacks abroad. There is certainly still a flicker of hope for peace talks in Afghanistan; however, there is also much uncertainty which is likely to come to a head over the coming year, with violence unlikely to come to a complete halt overnight.