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Sri Lanka is voting, China is smiling

Sri Lanka is voting, China is smiling

Voters in the island nation of Sri Lanka, located in the Indian Ocean just off the coast of India, head to the polls today in a legislative election that could not only reshape the country's democracy, but affect the geopolitical balance of power in Asia.

The election is a family affair. The vote is an opportunity for a party controlled by the Rajapaksa family, a powerful political dynasty that ran the country with a strong hand from 2005 to 2015, to cement their rule over the country again. In 2015, they lost the presidency to the opposition, which took steps to strengthen Sri Lanka's democracy but failed to deal effectively with terrorism and the economy.


Boosted by that government's failings, the Rajapaksas last fall made a big leap towards a restoration when Gotabaya Rajapaksa, an authoritarian army man known as "the terminator," won the presidency and appointed his brother (and former president) Mahinda as prime minister to lead a minority government. In today's election, the family's SLPP party is expected to win in a landslide.

Within Sri Lanka, the likely SLPP victory has raised concerns among activists and democracy watchdogs. The Rajapaksas are credited with ending the country's devastating 30-year civil war during their first stint in power. But rights groups worry about their authoritarian inclinations, human rights abuses, and strong ethnic Sinhalese nationalism, which puts them at odds with the country's sizable Tamil and Muslim minorities.

But outside powers like India and China are keenly interested in what happens too. Why? Because Sri Lanka is a strategic gem in the Indian Ocean, a waterway crisscrossed by boats carrying half of the world's oil shipments, and up to 80 percent of the energy consumed by both China and India. As Beijing and Delhi vie for strategic supremacy in Asia, each wants to have Sri Lanka on side.

Sri Lanka's closest commercial and diplomatic partner has traditionally been India, with which it shares cultural ties, as well as a complicated history of Indian involvement in the Sri Lankan civil war. But the previous Rajapaksa governments made a big effort to engage with Beijing, massively boosting Chinese trade and investment in the country. It was under the Rajapaksas that Sri Lanka signed a massive port deal with China – the subsequent government defaulted on the loans and handed over control to a Chinese company in 2017. More recently, the current president Rajapaksa has moved to revisit a planned Indian port deal in the capital, Colombo.

The Rajapaksas, who style themselves as "Sri Lanka first" nationalists, say they are simply trying to extract maximum benefit for their country by signing deals with the highest bidders, who happen to be Chinese. But all of this has worried India, and domestic Sri Lankan politics has in recent years become increasingly dominated by the (intensifying) China-India rivalry. When Mahinda Rajapaksa narrowly lost re-election in 2015, for example, he blamed Indian spies for helping the opposition. More recently, India and China have competed to provide aid to help Sri Lanka tackle the coronavirus, while China, ahead of today's vote, has been actively cultivating ties across the Sri Lankan political spectrum.

As China and India square off over technology, economic influence, and strategic supremacy in Asia, Sri Lanka will figure more prominently in their rivalry. And today's election will likely mark a turning point in Beijing's favor.

Meet Ian Martin, an English Professor from Glasgow who is now head of Communications for Eni's International Resources. Approaching his work in the same way he used to hold his lectures, Ian is dedicated to listening and making people around him comfortable. Having working in both Milan and London, Ian utilizes his ability to communicate in different languages and cultures to prepare Eni's global messaging strategy. "Communication is a transfer of humanity," he says, and his job is as much centered around people as it as around language.

Watch Ian's human approach to communications on the most recent episode of Faces of Eni.

How to capture the essence of this incredible, terrible year in a few short words and without using profanity? It's not easy.

Thankfully, the dictionary website Merriam-Webster.com has released its list of most heavily searched words of 2020, and they tell the story of an historic year in US politics and the life of our planet. Here's a sample.

The top word, unsurprisingly, was "Pandemic," a disease outbreak that covers a wide area and afflicts lots of people. In 2020, the coronavirus crisis hit every region of the world, triggering a public health, economic, and political emergency on a geographic scale our planet has never experienced. Differing responses to that problem defined the politics (and geopolitics) of 2020.

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While recent news from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca on the efficacy of their respective COVID vaccines is encouraging, it has also given rise to bidding wars between wealthy countries trying to secure the largest supply of the new drugs for their citizens. Meanwhile, many governments in emerging market economies, where healthcare infrastructure is generally weaker, are worried they'll be kicked to the back of the line in the global distribution process. Indeed, history bears out their concerns: while a lifesaving HIV treatment hit shelves in the West in the mid-1990s, for example, it took years to become widely in Africa, which saw some of the worst HIV outbreaks in the world. But here's the catch: even if wealthy countries manage to obtain large supplies of vaccines to immunize their populations, the interconnected nature of the global economy means that no one will really be out of the woods until we all are. Here's a snapshot of how many COVID vaccines select countries have already purchased.

Afghanistan's small breakthrough: For months, disagreements over a range of political issues have hamstrung the intra-Afghan peace talks brokered by the Trump administration that aim to bridge the years-long conflict between the Afghan government and the Taliban. But this week, a significant breakthrough was made on the principles and procedures governing the talks, that, experts say, will help push negotiations to the next phase. One key advance is agreement on the official name of the Afghan government, an issue that stalled talks earlier this year. Still, progress is fragile. Taliban violence and efforts to seize territory have only increased since the militants and the US reached a deal in February on a blueprint for an American troop withdrawal. And the Trump administration says it aims to pull out all but 2,500 US troops by mid-January, whether the Taliban have kept their end of the deal or not. What's more, while this week's development puts the parties one step closer to an eventual power-sharing agreement, it's unclear whether the incoming Biden administration will even honor the Trump administration's deal with the Taliban.

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Two weeks ago, Russia secured a deal to build a naval base in Sudan, its first new military facility in Africa since the end of the Cold War. The accord is a major milestone in Moscow's wider push to regain influence, and income, on a continent where the Kremlin was once a major player.

But with the ideological and military contests of the Cold War long over, what is Moscow doing in Africa today?

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Reasons for Hope: COVID and the Coming Year. Watch on Friday. Dec 4 2020 12 noon - 1 pm ET

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