1. A year after Galwan clash, China strengthening base along the LAC
PLA has rotated troops, built fresh infrastructure, hospitals in the area
A year since the clash between the Armies of India and China in the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has built additional accommodation in the depth areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on its side and is preparing for the long haul, according to official sources.
“PLA has built additional accommodations, both permanent and temporary, in Rudok, Kangxiwar, Gyantse and Golmud areas. Construction of field hospitals and procurement of additional snow mobility vehicles by the PLA also indicate that they are preparing for the long haul and permanent winter occupation of these posts,” a source said.
According to intelligence inputs, the Chinese troops in the Pangong Tso (lake) area have all been rotated. China’s 4th and 6th Divisions were withdrawn from both the banks of Pangong Lake to Rutog County for repairs in February, and returned to Xinjiang for repairs in the past three weeks. They were replaced by the 8th and 11th Divisions. Each division has two mobile infantry regiments, an armoured regiment, an artillery regiment and an air defence regiment.
“China is also intensifying construction work behind the main confrontation points in Aksai Chin,” the source said, citing intelligence inputs.
The PLA has also conducted exercises in Tibet and opposite Arunachal Pradesh. For instance, in the first week of this month, the PLA conducted a small arms training at Shigatse in Tibet. The PLA soldiers were trained in anti-tank rocket launchers, grenade launchers, anti-aircraft machine guns and other weapons, according to inputs.
In early May, Chinese state media Global Times reported that a unit of the PLA in the Xinjiang Military District under the Western Theatre Command had deployed new long-range heavy rocket artillery in the border region at an altitude of 5,200 metres.
Training was also recently conducted at a location opposite Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh at an altitude of 5,130 metres by a regiment from the Shannan Army Division, the official stated.
Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat recently said all Armies carried out training activities during peacetime, and the conduct of exercises was one such event to maintain operational preparedness. He added that China as well as India had carried out turnover of troops, and the best way to familiarise new troops was to carry out exercises.
On the disengagement situation in the Pangong Tso area, two officials said both sides had agreed to and have actually disengaged from the Finger areas on the north bank, but added that it was only disengaged and not de-induction.
Most Chinese deployment had just shifted back to the rear areas, one of the officials said.
Both sides have also emptied the heights of the Kailash ranges on the south bank where the Indian Army was in an advantageous position after decades due to the operation by the Special Frontier Force (SFF) in the end of August pre-empting Chinese moves to occupy them.
However, there has been no progress in the talks for disengagement at Gogra and Hotsprings as well as in Demchok and the strategic Depsang Valley.
There was no change in the ground situation since the disengagement at Pangong Tso and the situation is quiet, the second official said.
In the first combat fatalities in 45 years, 20 Indian soldiers were killed in the violent clash after they were attacked by Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley on the night of June 15, 2020, during a “de-escalation” process after a month-long stand-off between the troops at several points in eastern Ladakh and Sikkim.
China, which initially did not reveal its casualty numbers, later said four of its soldiers had been killed.
11 rounds of talks
India and China have so far held 11 rounds of military talks for disengagement and de-escalation in eastern Ladakh since the stand-off began early May last year. Defence officials said there was no clarity yet on when the next round of talks would be held.
Army chief General M.M. Naravane recently said India was dealing with China in a “firm and non-escalatory” manner and the coming rounds of talks would focus on restoration of status quo ante of April 2020.
The Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson recently said the process of disengagement along the LAC “remains unfinished” and an early completion of disengagement could lead to de-escalation of forces which would “hopefully” lead to full restoration of peace and tranquillity in the border areas and enable overall progress in the bilateral relationship.
Line of Actual Control
- Demarcation Line: The Line of Actual Control (LAC) is the demarcation that separates Indian-controlled territory from Chinese-controlled territory.
- LAC is different from the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan:
- The LoC emerged from the 1948 ceasefire line negotiated by the United Nations (UN) after the Kashmir War.
- It was designated as the LoC in 1972, following the Shimla Agreement between the two countries. It is delineated on a map signed by the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) of both armies and has the international sanctity of a legal agreement.
- The LAC, in contrast, is only a concept – it is not agreed upon by the two countries, neither delineated on a map or demarcated on the ground.
- Length of the LAC: India considers the LAC to be 3,488 km long, while the Chinese consider it to be only around 2,000 km.
- Sectors Across the LAC:
- It is divided into three sectors: the eastern sector which spans Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim (1346 km), the middle sector in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh (545 km), and the western sector in Ladakh (1597 km).
- The alignment of the LAC in the eastern sector is along the 1914 McMahon Line.
- The McMohan line marked out previously unclaimed/undefined borders between Britain and Tibet.
- The middle sector is the least disputed sector, while the western sector witnesses the highest transgressions between the two sides.
- It is divided into three sectors: the eastern sector which spans Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim (1346 km), the middle sector in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh (545 km), and the western sector in Ladakh (1597 km).
- India’s claim line is different from that of the LAC. It is the line seen in the official boundary marked on the maps as released by the Survey of India, including Aksai Chin (occupied by China).
- In China’s case, LAC corresponds mostly to its claim line, but in the eastern sector, it claims the entire Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet.
- The claim lines come into question when a discussion on the final international boundaries takes place, and not when the conversation is about a working border i.e. LAC.
2. No greater risk to children from anticipated third wave: report
‘Mortality rate among hospitalised COVID-positive children below 10 was 2.4%’
There is no evidence so far to conclude that children face a greater risk of infection or are at greater danger from a COVID-19 infection from an anticipated third wave, according to a report from The Lancet COVID-19 Commission India Task Force. The group consists of paediatric experts from across the country comprising clinicians from top government medical colleges and large private or charitable hospitals.
They were tasked with examining the evidence and recommending practical clinical tools and strategies for providers, and guidance for policymakers and the public to effectively address COVID-19 in children. Though data from India were limited, the mortality rate amongst hospitalised COVID-19 positive children below the age of 10 (excluding neonates) was 2.4%. About 40% of the children who had died had co-morbidities and 9% of all hospitalised COVID-positive children presented with severe illness, all under 10 years of age. These observations were similar during the two surges of COVID-19 infections in India.
As of May 2021, of all COVID-positive cases in children globally, 0.1-1.9% resulted in hospitalisation. Children comprised 1.3-3.2 % of the total reported hospital admissions. Mortality was also “significantly low” at 0.1% of the total 0.47 million deaths. The mortality rate has also remained the same in both years, at 0.05% of the total annual COVID-19 deaths.
The existing evidence says that while children have milder disease, better prognosis and low mortality in comparison to adults, those with underlying illness could be at higher risk.
For children with a mild infection, the experts recommend management in home isolation, if feasible, and symptomatic treatment with paracetamol.
A concern with COVID-19 and children were reports around multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). The manifestation of the condition mimics viral, bacterial and rickettsial infections. The early signs of MIS-C included “atypical Kawasaki disease” (KD)-like presentations in younger children and gastrointestinal manifestations with abdominal pain mimicking appendicitis, diarrhoea and features resembling toxic shock syndrome, rather than acute pneumonia with respiratory symptoms, in older children. However, most published data suggested mild to moderate predisposition in most cases and low mortality linked with MIS-C, they note.
The experts also highlight the psychological impact of the pandemic. In a recent meta-analysis of 15 studies across 10 countries, describing 22,996 children/adolescents, it was reported that the behaviour/psychological state of a total of 79.4% of the children was affected negatively by the pandemic and quarantine; at least 22.5% of the children had a significant fear of COVID-19, 35.2% complained of boredom and 21.3% had sleep disturbances. Schools ought to be reopened cautiously with options for online access as needed.
“It is imperative to recognise as a society that in our well-meaning attempt to protect our young ones from disease and keep them physically safe, we do not inadvertently impair their minds by curtailing access of expression for their inherent curiosity, creativity, and joy,” the authors underline.
3. Tree of coffee family discovered in Andaman and Nicobar
Pyrostria laljii is the first record of genus Pyrostria in India
A 15-metre-tall tree that belongs to the genus of the coffee family has recently been discovered from the Andaman Islands by a team of researchers from India and the Philippines. The new species, Pyrostria laljii, is also the first record of the genus Pyrostria in India, the researchers said.
Plants belonging to genus Pyrostria are usually found in Madagascar, but the recently discovered species is new to science.
The tree is distinguished by a long stem with a whitish coating on the trunk and oblong-obovate leaves with a cuneate base, and was first reported from the Wandoor forest in South Andaman.
The other places in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands where the tree could be located are the Tirur forest near the Jarawa Rerserve Forest and the Chidia Tapu (Munda Pahar) forest.
Pyrostria laljii has been assessed as ‘Critically Endangered’ based on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List criteria.
M.C. Naik from the Botanical Survey of India, M. Bheemalingappa from the Sri Krishnadevaraya University, Anantapuram, and Axel H. Arriola from University of the East, Manila, Philippines, published the details of the discovery a few months ago in an international, peer-reviewed journal Annales Botanici Fennici.
Mr. Naik pointed out that the discovery was unique as the species was a big tree and had not been recorded as a new species yet.
The species has been named Pyrostria laljii after Lal Ji Singh, Joint Director and Head of Office, Andaman and Nicobar Regional Centre, Botanical Survey of India. “While the genus Pyrostria is not found in India, there are several genera from the family Rubiaceae that are common in India. These plants, including cinchona, coffee, adina, hamelia, ixora, galium, gardenia, mussaenda, rubia, morinda, have high potential for economic value. More studies should be carried out to ascertain whether Pyrostria laljii could have some economic value,” Dr. Singh said.
Other physical features that distinguish the tree from other species of the genus is its umbellate inflorescence with eight to 12 flowers.
Dr. Singh and Mr. Naik have also discovered a new species of pokeweed named Rivina andamanensis.
They said it was found growing under large trees, shaded and rocky areas, along with herbs and shrubby plants.
“This discovery of new species, representing the first record of the pokeweed family Petiveriaceae in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, adds one more family to the islands’ flora,” the researchers said.
IUCN Red List
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species shows that more and more species assessed are being threatened with extinction.
- The list assessed 1,05,732 species – the largest such assessment of species, out of which 28,338 species are threatened with extinction.
- The updated list brings out an alarming rate of decline of freshwater and deep sea species. For example, over 50 % of Japan’s endemic freshwater fishes are under the threat of extinction.
- Wedgefishes and giant guitarfishes, collectively known as Rhino Rays because of their elongated snouts, have been listed as the ‘most imperilled marine fish families in the world’.
- The main drivers of this decline are the loss of free flowing rivers and increasing agricultural and urban pollution.
- Close to 50% of the species assessed by IUCN have been put under the ‘Least Concern’ category. It means the rest 50% are under various degrees of decline.
- Of the total assessed, 873 are already extinct while 6,127 are critically endangered.
- This Red List update confirms the findings of the IPBES Global Biodiversity Assessment.
- The list clearly indicates that humans are overexploiting wildlife.
- According to the global Strategic Plan for Biodiversity (2011-2020)’s Target 12, the extinction of known threatened species has to be ‘prevented’ by 2020. The target also includes an improvement in the conservation status of species.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature
- IUCN is a membership union uniquely composed of both government and civil society organisations.
- Created in 1948, it is the global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it.
- It is headquartered in Switzerland.
- The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, is the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of plant and animal species.
- It uses a set of quantitative criteria to evaluate the extinction risk of species. These criteria are relevant to most species and all regions of the world.
- The IUCN Red List Categories define the extinction risk of species assessed. Nine categories extend from NE (Not Evaluated) to EX (Extinct). Critically Endangered (CR), Endangered (EN) and Vulnerable (VU) species are considered to be threatened with extinction.
- It is recognized as the most authoritative guide to the status of biological diversity.
- It is also a key indicator for the SDGs and Aichi Targets.
4. G7 agrees to boost climate finance, calls on others to join
Pledges of cash promises lack specifics, say green groups
G7 leaders agreed on Sunday to raise their contributions to meet an overdue spending pledge of $100 billion a year to help poorer countries cut carbon emissions and cope with global warming, calling on other developed countries to join the effort. But campaigners said firm cash promises were missing.
Alongside plans billed as helping speed infrastructure funding in developing countries and a shift to renewable and sustainable technology, the world’s seven largest advanced economies again pledged to meet the climate finance target.
But climate groups said the promise made in the summit’s final communique lacked detail, most importantly a figure for the increases.
A spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said nations would set out their increases “in due course”. Germany said it would boost its contribution by 2 billion to 6 billion euros ($7.26 billion) a year by 2025 at the latest.
In the communique, the seven nations — the U.S., Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan — reaffirmed their commitment to “jointly mobilise $100 billion per year from public and private sources, through to 2025”.
“Towards this end, we commit to each increase and improve our overall international public climate finance contributions for this period and call on other developed countries to join and enhance their contributions to this effort.”
There was a clear push by leaders at the G7 summit in southwestern England to try to counter China’s increasing influence in the world, particularly among developing nations.
The leaders signalled their desire to build a rival to Beijing’s multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road initiative but the details were few and far between.
Mr. Johnson, host of the gathering in Carbis Bay, told a news conference that developed nations had to move further, faster.
“G7 countries account for 20% of global carbon emissions, and we were clear this weekend that action has to start with us,” he said.
“And while it’s fantastic that every one of the G7 countries has pledged to wipe out our contributions to climate change, we need to make sure we’re achieving that as fast as we can and helping developing countries at the same time.”
Some green groups were unimpressed with the climate pledges.
Catherine Pettengell, director at Climate Action Network, an umbrella group for advocacy organisations, said the G7 had failed to rise to the challenge of agreeing on concrete commitments on climate finance.
“We had hoped that the leaders of the world’s richest nations would come away from this week having put their money their mouth is,” she said.
Tasneem Essop, executive director at Climate Action International, said rich countries must “put new and additional finance on the table”.
Developed countries agreed at the UN in 2009 to together contribute $100 billion each year by 2020 in climate finance to poorer countries, many of whom are grappling with rising seas, storms and droughts made worse by climate change.
That target was not met, derailed in part by the pandemic that also forced Britain to postpone the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) until later this year.
The G7 also said 2021 should be a “turning point for our planet” and to accelerate efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and keep the 1.5 Celsius global warming threshold within reach.
Group of Seven (G-7)
- It is an intergovernmental organisation that was formed in 1975.
- The bloc meets annually to discuss issues of common interest like global economic governance, international security and energy policy.
- The G-7 does not have a formal constitution or a fixed headquarters. The decisions taken by leaders during annual summits are non-binding.
- G-7 is a bloc of industrialized democracies i.e. France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Japan, the United States, and Canada.
- The G7 was known as the ‘G8’ for several years after the original seven were joined by Russia in 1997.
- The Group returned to being called G7 after Russia was expelled as a member in 2014 following the latter’s annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine
- Summit Participation:
- Summits are held annually and hosted on a rotation basis by the group’s members.
- The groundwork for the summit, including matters to be discussed and follow-up meetings, is done by the “sherpas”, who are generally personal representatives or members of diplomatic staff such as ambassadors.
- The leaders of important international organizations like European Union, IMF, World Bank and the United Nations are also invited.
- Challenges and Concerns:
- Internally the G7 has a number of disagreements, e.g. clash of the USA with other members over taxes on imports and action on climate change.
- The organisation has also been criticised for not reflecting the current state of global politics or economics.
- Not Representative:
- There are no G7 members from Africa, Latin America or the southern hemisphere.
- It is also facing a challenge from fast-growing emerging economies, like India and Brazil are not members of the G7.
- However, G-20 was formed in 1999, in response to a felt need to bring more countries on board to address global economic concerns.
- India and G-7
- Previous Participation:
- The participation of India at the 45th summit in Biarritz, France, in August 2019 is a reflection of deepening strategic partnership and recognition of India as a major economic power.
- India was also invited for the 2020 summit hosted by the USA which could not take place due to the pandemic.
- Previously India had attended the G-8 summit (it became G-7 from G-8 with the expulsion of Russia in 2014) five times between 2005 and 2009.
- Important Platform for Deliberations:
- India’s ability to safeguard its core sovereign concerns such as trade, Kashmir issue and India’s relations with Russia and Iran can be discussed with G7 members.
- Taking on Global Stage:
- India raised issues on climate change and at meetings which signaled India’s growing willingness to lead on issues that are points of contention for countries like China and the USA.
- Significance of India at G7:
- As current president of Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) and G20 president in 2023, India will play a key role driving in multilateral cooperation helping to build back better around the world.
- Previous Participation:
5. Rare earth metals at the heart of China-U.S. rivalry
Beijing’s dominance in these minerals, key to the future of manufacturing, is a cause for concern for the West
What if China were to cut off the U.S. and Europe from access to rare minerals that are essential to electric vehicles, wind turbines and drones?
At a time of frequent geopolitical friction among those three powers, Washington and Brussels want to avoid this scenario by investing in the market for 17 minerals with unique properties that today are largely extracted and refined in China.
“The expected exponential growth in demand for minerals that are linked to clean energy is putting more pressure on U.S. and Europe to take a closer look at where the vulnerabilities are and the concrete steps these governments can take,” said Jane Nakano, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In 2019, the U.S. imported 80% of its rare earth minerals from China, the U.S. Geological Survey says.
The EU gets 98% of its supply from China, the European Commission said last year.
Amid the transition to green energy, in which rare earth minerals are sure to play a role, China’s market dominance is enough to sound an alarm in western capitals.
Rare earth minerals, with names like neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium, are crucial to the manufacture of magnets used in industries of the future, such as wind turbines and electric cars. And they are already being used in consumer goods such as smartphones, computer screens and telescopic lenses.
This week the U.S. Senate passed a law aimed at improving American competitiveness that includes provisions to improve critical minerals supply chains.
U.S. aims to boost production and processing of rare earths and lithium, another key mineral component, while “working with allies to increase sustainable global supply and reduce reliance on competitors,” Deputy Director of the National Economic Council Sameera Fazili said on Tuesday.
The best hope for boosting American production can be found at the Mountain Pass mine in California.
Once one of the major players in the sector, the mine suffered as China rose and ate up its market share, aided by Beijing’s subsidies.
China is expected to remain dominant for some time to come, but experts say that if recycling is scaled up, “20 to 30% of Europe’s rare earth magnet needs by 2030 could be sourced domestically in the EU from literally zero today.”
Rare Earth Elements (REE)
Rare Earth Elements (REE) are metals having many similar properties. The global demand for rare earth elements has increased significantly in line with their expansion into high-end technology, environment, and economic areas. In this post, we see the importance of Rare Earth Elements and their strategic significance.
What is a Rare Earth Element (REE)?
- Rare earth elements (REE) are a group of seventeen chemical elements that occur together in the periodic table, 15 lanthanides ( Z=57 through 71), Scandium and Yttrium.
- All are metals and have many similar properties which often cause them to be found together in geologic deposits. That is why they are also known as rare earth metals.
- They are also referred to as “rare earth oxides” because many of them are sold as oxide compounds.
- Samarium (Sm), scandium (Sc), terbium (Tb), thulium (Tm), ytterbium (Yb), yttrium (Y), cerium (Ce), dysprosium (Dy), erbium (Er), europium (Eu), gadolinium (Gd), holmium (Ho), lanthanum (La), lutetium (Lu), neodymium (Nd), praseodymium (Pr), promethium (Pm).
Why Scandium and Yttrium also included in the Rare Earth Elements (REE)?
- Because they are found in the same ore deposits as the lanthanides and show similar chemical properties.
Are rare earth materials rare as a natural resource?
- They are not rare in quantity, in fact, some of them are very abundant in earth’s crust for example cerium is more abundant than copper and lead. However, their extraction is very difficult.
Why are they called as rare earth minerals?
- They are so-called ‘rare earth’ because they were originally isolated in the 18th and 19th centuries as oxides from ‘rare minerals’. Further, technologically it was difficult to extract them from their oxides forms until the 20th century. Therefore, the name they got in the 18th century is still stuck with them.
- They occur in many minerals but typically in concentrations too low to be refined in an economical manner.
What is the significance of Rare Earth Elements (REE)?
- They have distinctive electrical, metallurgical, catalytic, nuclear, magnetic and luminescent properties.
- They are strategically very important due to their use of emerging and diverse technologies which cater to the needs of current society.
- Its usage range from daily use (e.g., lighter flints, glass polishing mediums, car alternators) to high-end technology (lasers, magnets, batteries, fibre-optic telecommunication cables).
- Even futuristic technologies need these REMs (For example high-temperature superconductivity, safe storage and transport of hydrogen for a post-hydrocarbon economy, environmental global warming and energy efficiency issues).
- The global demand for REMs has increased significantly in line with their expansion into high-end technology, environment, and economic areas.
- They are extremely important for many modern technologies, including consumer electronics, computers, and networks, communications, clean energy, advanced transportation, health care, environmental mitigation, national defense etc.
- Due to their unique magnetic, luminescent, and electrochemical properties, they help in technologies perform with reduced weight, reduced emissions, and energy consumption; therefore give them greater efficiency, performance, miniaturization, speed, durability, and thermal stability.
What are the uses of Rare Earth Metals (REMs) in Defense?
Usage of Rare Earth Elements (REE) in Emerging technologies
- They are being used in anything and everything that comes out as an innovative product nowadays for example from I-phones to I-TV and many other devices that people use every day such as computer memory, DVDs, rechargeable batteries, cell phones, catalytic converters, magnets, fluorescent lighting and much more.
- These are used for air pollution control, illuminated screens on electronic devices, and the polishing of optical-quality glass.
What is rare earth dilemma?
- The extraction of REMs is one of the most environmentally negative and toxic generating of all mining practices.
- Disproportionate rare earth mining has resulted into landslides, clogged rivers, environmental pollution emergencies and even major accidents and disasters, causing great damage to people’s safety and health and the ecological environment.
- China produces tens of millions of tons of wastewater every year while extracting rare earth minerals.
- Therefore, it’s a dilemma that is we really having better lifestyle using these materials in emerging technologies or we polluting our environment in the process too much!
Analysis of supply demand of REE
- Currently, China has control over 94% in producing and mining REMs and further china has very high natural reserves for these. As per some recent reports, China is even buying these reserve in others countries and regions to have a monopoly over production for a very long time. And due to these very reasons, it has become very critical metal for India since India is not having enough resources and it further suffers technological constraints in mining its own reserves of REEs.
- A study, conducted by the think-tank Council on Energy Environment and Water, identifies 12 minerals out of 49 that were evaluated as ‘most critical’ for India’s manufacturing sector by 2030. These are beryllium, chromium, germanium, limestone, niobium, graphite, rare earth, rhenium, strontium, tantalum and zirconium. Other minerals like limestone and graphite, while currently abundantly available in India, are deemed ‘critical’ because extractable resources could be scarce in the future.
- For others, the report says, India is 100 percent import-dependent for seven out of 12 identified critical minerals and does not have any declared resources for them, except light rare earth (found along with monazite sands) and beryllium.
What is the future use of Rare Earth Metals?
- The global demand for automobiles, consumer electronics, energy-efficient lighting, and catalysts is expected to rise rapidly over the next decade. REMs are critical raw material for future of these technologies/industries.
- Rare earth magnet demand is expected to increase due to the rise in demand for rechargeable batteries.
- New developments in medical technology are expected to increase the use of surgical lasers, magnetic resonance imaging, and positron emission tomography scintillation detectors.
- Future military and navy arsenals may utilize REMs for better efficiency and handling.
6. Editorial-1: The world is hardly wired for cyber resilience
Defending civilian targets and infrastructure against rising cyberattacks will stretch the capability of governments
A string of high-profile cyberattacks in recent months has exposed vulnerabilities in the critical infrastructure of even advanced nations. This has reinforced the need for improved defences against actual, and potential, cyberattacks by all countries across continents.
America under attack
Several high-profile cyberattacks were reported from the United States during the past several months. Towards the end of 2020, for instance, a major cyberattack headlined ‘SolarWinds’ — and believed to have been sponsored from Russia — had rocked the U.S. It involved data breaches across several wings of the U.S. government, including defence, energy and state. Before the U.S. could even recover from this breach, thousands of U.S. organisations were hacked in early 2021 in an unusually aggressive cyberattack, by a Chinese group Hafnium, which had exploited serious flaws in Microsoft’s software, thus gaining remote control over affected systems.
In quick succession, thereafter, the U.S. has witnessed three more major attacks: an audacious ransomware attack by Russia/East Europe-based cybercriminals, styled DarkSide, on Colonial Pipeline (which is the main supplier of oil to the U.S. East Coast), compelling the company to temporarily shut down operations. The siege was lifted after Colonial Pipeline paid out several million dollars as ransom to unlock its computers and release its files. There are reports of the ransom being received in bitcoins which was later seized by the U.S government. Another Russia-backed group, Nobellium, next launched a phishing attack on 3,000 e-mail accounts, targeting USAID and several other organisations. Early this month, JBS SA, the U.S. subsidiary of a Brazilian meat processing company, was the target of a ransomware attack; the company also paid a ransom in millions.
Now, civilian targets
These attacks were all primarily on civilian targets, though each one was of critical importance. Obviously cyber, which is often referred to as the fifth domain/dimension of warfare, is now largely being employed against civilian targets, bringing the war into our homes. Most nations have been concentrating till date mainly on erecting cyber defences to protect military and strategic targets, but this will now need to change. The obsession of military cyber planners has been to erect defences against software vulnerabilities referred to as ‘Zero-day’, that had the capability to cripple a system and could lie undetected for a long time. (The most celebrated Zero-day software of this kind to date is Stuxnet, which almost crippled Iran’s uranium enrichment programme some years back). Today, other Zero-day software, no doubt exist, though little is known about them. What is, however, evident is that a whole new market currently exists for Zero day software outside the military domain, and the world must prepare for this eventuality.
Defending civilian targets, and more so critical infrastructure, against cyberattacks such as ransomware and phishing, including spear phishing, apart from unknown Zero day software, is almost certain to stretch the capability and resources of governments across the globe, somewhat in the manner that nations have been forced to find the resources and the methods to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. One related problem is that the distinction between military and civilian targets is increasingly getting erased and the consequences of this could be indeterminate. For instance, the 2012 cyberattack on Aramco, employing the Shamoon virus, which wiped out the memories of 30,000 computers of the Saudi Aramco Oil Corporation, has ever since been one reason for the very frosty relations between different countries in West Asia and the Gulf region.
Cyber warfare is replete with several damaging methodologies. In the civilian domain, two key manifestations of the ‘cat and mouse game’ of cyber warfare today, are ransomware and phishing, including spear phishing. Ransomware attacks have skyrocketed, with demands and payments going into multi-millions of dollars. India figures prominently in this list, being one of the most affected. Also experts believe that of late, the recovery cost from the impact of a ransomware attack — in India, for example, has tripled — and mid-sized companies, in particular, today face a catastrophic situation, if attacked, and may even have to cease operations. Thus, the need to be aware of the nature of the cyber threat to their businesses and take adequate precautionary measures, has become extremely vital. Banking and financial services were most prone to ransomware attacks till date, but oil, electricity grids, and lately, health care, have begun to figure prominently.
Zeroing in on health care
What is specially worrisome at this time, when a pandemic is raging, is the number of cyberattacks on health-care systems. With data becoming a vital element in today’s world, personal information has become a vital commodity. One of the more vulnerable areas where data tends to be linked to a specific individual is in health care. Compromised ‘health information’ is proving to be a vital commodity for use by cybercriminals. All indications are that cybercriminals are increasingly targeting a nation’s health-care system and trying to gain access to patients’ data. The available data aggravates the risk not only to the individual but also to entire communities.
It would be a mistake to believe that we can hope for a respite from cyberattacks such as ransomware and phishing. Cybercriminals are becoming more sophisticated, and are now engaged in stealing sensitive data in targeted computers before launching a ransomware attack. This is resulting in a kind of ‘double jeopardy’ for the targeted victim. Also, today’s cybercriminals, specially those specialising in ransomware and similar attacks, are different from the ordinary run-of-the-mill criminals. Many are known to practise ‘reverse engineering’ and employ ‘penetration testers’ to probe high secure networks.
The bad news is that the cyber landscape is poised to undergo more fundamental changes. Motivation for cyberattacks vary: for (some) nation states, the motivation is geopolitical transformation; for cybercriminals, it is increased profits; for terror groups, the motivation remains much the same, but the risk factor may be lower. However, it is ‘insider threats’ — due to discontent with the management or for personal reasons — that could well become an omnipotent reality.
Need for data protection
Cybersecurity essentially hinges on data protection. As data becomes the world’s most precious commodity, attacks on data and data systems are bound to intensify. Reportedly, we create more than three quintillion bytes of data everyday (some put it at over 2.5 quintillion) — with several billion devices interconnected to billions of end point devices exchanging petabytes of sensitive data, on the network. This is only bound to grow. Ensuring data protection could, hence, prove to be a rather thankless task, complicating the lives of Information and other security professionals.
The data life cycle can broadly be classified into data at rest (when it is being created and stored), data in motion (when it is being transmitted across insecure and uncontrolled networks), and data in use (when it is being consumed). Constant exposure lends itself to ever increasing data thefts and abuse. With mobile and cloud computing expanding rapidly, and also given the nature of the on-going pandemic, cybersecurity professionals are now engaged in building a ‘Zero Trust Based Environment’, viz., zero trust on end point devices, zero trust on identity, and zero trust on the network to protect all sensitive data. What is of interest is that there do exist quite a few niche companies today, which have developed (or are developing) newer technologies to create a Zero Trust Based environment employing: software defined solutions for agile perimeter security, secure gateways, cloud access security, privileged access management, threat intelligence platforms, static and dynamic data masking, etc. The moot point is whether not only those in authority but even more so those in the world of business, (specially oil and finance, and specifically health care) are aware of this — and, more important, are ready to utilise these technologies — to ward-off a cyberattack and safeguard their data.
Preparation is needed
Building deep technology in cyber is essential. New technologies such as artificial intelligence, Machine learning and quantum computing, also present new opportunities. Nations that are adequately prepared — conceptually and technologically — and have made rapid progress in artificial intelligence and quantum computing and the like will have a clear advantage over states that lag behind in these fields. Pressure also needs to be put on officials in the public domain, as also company boards, to carry out regular vulnerability assessments and create necessary awareness of the growing cyber threat. In the end, it might be appropriate to quote IBM Chairman, Arvind Krishna, that cybersecurity will be “the pressing issue of this decade” and that “value lies in the data and people are going to come after that data”.
7. Editorial-2: Origin unclear
China’s cooperation in identifying the source of the coronavirus is vital
Over 17 months after WHO first reported a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan, China, scientists are yet to determine with certainty how the SARS-CoV-2 virus emerged. Much like other viruses, SARS-CoV-2 too could have a natural origin or somehow escaped from the coronavirus research lab in Wuhan, the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak. With no hard scientific evidence available to confirm the lab leak hypothesis, there are some scientific leads that support a natural origin. If it is a zoonotic spillover, the virus could have either directly crossed over from bats to humans or through an intermediate host. But till date, neither the bat species that hosts the SARS-CoV-2 virus nor the intermediate host has been found. China’s secrecy and delay in reporting the Wuhan outbreak and in finding the natural host or the intermediary have further fuelled the lab spillover hypothesis. Finding the host animal can be daunting. While the civet cat and dromedary camel were quickly identified to be the intermediate hosts of SARS and MERS, respectively, it took years to identify the horseshoe bat that harbours SARS virus strains. To date, a complete Ebola virus has never been isolated from an animal source.
If the virus had been bioengineered, the genome sequence would carry tell-tale signs. But scientists have not found any signature of genetic manipulation. While a particular site (furin cleavage) on the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein that allows the virus to infect the cells has been cited as evidence of bioengineering, the fact is that it is not unique to SARS-CoV-2. A combination of nucleotides in the furin cleavage site that encode for a particular amino acid — another feature that is forwarded as supporting laboratory manipulation — too has been shown to be not unique. For instance, the nucleotide combination encoding for the amino acid is present in other sites of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and in the 2003 SARS virus. The possibility of SARS-CoV-2 evolving via cell culture appears bleak as scientists have found the virus losing features key to transmission and virulence unless cultured using new methods. Reports of three Wuhan lab researchers falling ill in November 2019 by itself does not prove a lab leak hypothesis. There is no evidence that they were infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and even if they were, it is necessary to prove that it happened from inside the lab. In the absence of conclusive evidence to support either hypothesis so far, a thorough investigation is needed. While the inquiry by the U.S. intelligence might provide clues, a scientific investigation is more likely to help reach closure; China’s cooperation, therefore, becomes vital and politicising the virus origin is not going to help.
8. Editorial-4: Planning for a biosecure future
COVID-19 has further highlighted the biosecurity concerns of synthetic biology
COVID-19 has made it clear that our traditional imagination of national security is no longer credible. The preparedness of nation states and tenuous global security arrangements were insufficient in dealing with the crisis. The future of national security studies, therefore, will be forced to undergo a paradigm shift if it must retain any policy impact at all — it would need to rethink the sources of insecurity, to begin with. The growth of exponential technologies such as synthetic biology, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology is bound to change the theory and practice of national security. COVID-19 has quickened the inevitable.
Among the exponential technologies shaping the world today, the biological revolution is of exceptional importance. The rapid rise of synthetic biology in the last two decades and its still-to-be-understood implications haven’t received sufficient attention from the security studies or policy communities. COVID-19 has further highlighted the biosecurity concerns of synthetic biology. The argument is not that COVID-19 originated in a lab, but that dangerous bio-weapons can come from labs.
That new organisms, biological parts and devices can be created or that existing natural life forms can be redesigned should ideally be the subject matter for scientists to concern themselves with or for ethicists to debate. But today, there is a growing realisation that exponential technologies have hitherto unforeseen national and global security implications. In 2014, for instance, the U.S. Department of Defense categorised synthetic biology as one of the six ‘disruptive basic research areas’ even though linkage between national security and synthetic biology is yet to become an agenda item in mainstream national security debates.
Synthetic biology is a revolutionary technology, which can help us manipulate biological organisms and processes for human betterment, especially in treating diseases, by re-engineering cells. But it is a double-edged sword. There are many risks associated with the technology, which must be addressed before it becomes widely accessible. For one, there is the possibility of deliberate misuse. While the technology is still not easily accessible, the day is not far off when such technologies won’t be difficult to access. There is a need to carefully review, especially in the wake of the pandemic, the biosecurity systems in place where such technologies are in use. Accidental leaks of experimental pathogens are another concern. Insufficiently trained staff, inadequately safeguarded facilities, and lack of proper protocols could all be behind such leaks. The reality is that there has been very little focus on threats emanating from biological sources. Contrast this with the focus on nuclear weapons, facilities and material. Not only are they tightly controlled but are also the subject of strong global regimes. This is despite the fact that a well-orchestrated biological attack could have serious implications even though it would be less ‘spectacular’ since its effects are less immediate. This was before synthetic biology came into play. A well-planned attack using highly infectious pathogens synthetically engineered in a lab could be disastrous.
What if such attacks are contemplated and carried out by state actors against adversaries? How easy would it be to pin responsibility on a specific actor if the incubation period is high and the pathogen can be modified to hide its origin? Unlike the nuclear domain, the fields of biology or synthetic biology are not regulated internationally despite growing military interest in synthetic biology applications and their potential misuse.
The ‘weapon of mass destruction’ (WMD) capability of bio-weapons has been long recognised but very little has been done by the international community about it. Of the three types of WMD, nuclear weapons have received the maximum safety and security attention given the treaty and institutional arrangements associated with it. Chemical weapons come next. There is an international convention and an implementing body. However, when it comes to bio-weapons, all we have is the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) of 1972 with no implementing body. The BTWC does not have a verification clause, nor does it have clearly laid down rules and procedures to guide research in this field.
The dilemma is evident in Article 1 of the BTWC itself which bans “microbial or other biological agents, or toxins, whatever their origin or method of production” that “have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes”. In other words, while bio-weapons are banned, research for medical and bio-defence purposes are allowed. While this is understandable, the problem is that there is a thin line between bio-defence research and bio-weapons research. Since bio-defence research routinely uses pathogens and toxins for experimental purposes, processes, know-how and outcomes of bio-defence research could potentially be used to create bio-weapons, especially with the new advancements in synthetic biology. More so as the pharmaceutical industry has vehemently opposed any intrusive inspection regime.
An Ad Hoc Group set up in 1994 to negotiate a Protocol to enhance the transparency of treaty-relevant biological facilities and activities to help deter violations of the BTWC submitted a report at the Fifth BTWC Review Conference in 2001 but was not accepted by the member states. The initiative has since been shelved.
Pandemics have also highlighted that the traditional distinction at the international institutional level between biological weapons (a field governed by the BTWC) and diseases (a domain under the World Health Organization) may not be useful anymore. There needs to be more conversation between health specialists and bio-weapons/defence specialists.
The November 2021 BTWC review conference must take stock of the advances in the field, address the thinning line between biotechnology research and bio-weapons research, and consider international measures for monitoring and verification.
India uniquely unprepared
India is at a uniquely disadvantaged position compared to the more developed countries in this area given poor disease surveillance, insufficient coordination among various government departments dealing with biosecurity issues, and the pathetic state of the healthcare system.
India has multiple institutions dealing with biosafety and biosecurity threats but there is no coordination among them. For instance, implementation of biosafety guidelines is the responsibility of the Science and Technology Ministry and the Environment Ministry. However, labs dealing with biological research are set up under the Indian Council of Medical Research and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, which are under the Ministries of Health and Agriculture, respectively.
This highlights two issues pertaining directly to biosecurity. One, the multiplicity of bodies and ministers makes coordination difficult, especially in the absence of an empowered coordinating body. Two, given the rising risk of diseases of zoonotic origin, the traditional ministry-wise separation might not be useful. Another important question is whether India, with its porous borders and ill-trained border control institutions, is prepared for defending against pathogens or dangerous biological organisms or agents arriving from abroad. COVID-19 should serve as a wake-up call.
9. Editroial-5: Censorship by noise
The act of delegitimising professional journalism undermines news media’s status as the fourth estate
For nearly two decades, I have been concurrently looking at the annual Reuters Memorial Lecture delivered at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford, and the Pulitzer Prizes for journalism administered by Columbia University. While the prizes represent the best practices in informing the public, the lecture deals with “a critical issue facing the news industry” and is delivered by “someone at the highest level of journalism”. The concurrent reading, in a sense, becomes a form of SWOT analysis. The lectures and prizes give insights into the current status of journalism and provide valuable clues on navigating its choppy waters.
The vulnerability of journalism
It is disheartening to record that this year, both the Reuters Memorial Lecture and the Pulitzer Prizes have become veritable documents of the vulnerability of journalism. In April 2020, Nadja Drost wrote a long-form report in The California Sunday Magazine titled “When can we really rest?” It was on migrants crossing the Colombia-Panama border, which is said to be one of the most dangerous journeys in the world, to reach the U.S. On June 11, 2021, Ms. Drost, a freelance writer, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for her article, which the Pulitzer committee described as “a brave and gripping account of global migration that documents a group’s journey on foot through the Darién Gap, one of the most dangerous migrant routes in the world”.
The tragedy is that The California Sunday Magazine no longer exists. Last June, it stopped its print edition. And as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to take its toll, the magazine stopped publishing online and posting on social media at the end of September. Kristen Hare of Poynter pointed out the historic significance of this development. She wrote: “At least in the last 10 years, this is the first example we can find of a publication closing before it won a Pulitzer.” She also pointed out that in the U.S., during the pandemic, more than 75 newsrooms closed, including some that were more than 100 years old. This pandemic-induced bloodbath in journalism is evident in India too.
If the Pulitzer Prize has gone to a defunct publication that was dedicated to long-form journalism, the Reuters Memorial Lecture brought out the multiple pressures faced by journalists in pursuing their vocation in a free and independent manner. On June 8, Brazilian journalist Patrícia Campos Mello delivered the annual lecture drawing from her series of investigative pieces on the rise of disinformation in Brazil. While the focus of her talk was Brazil, it is impossible not to draw parallels with what we are witnessing in India. She said: “Lies are the foundation of the health tragedy we are going through and lies are the cornerstone of our incoming political disaster. Professional journalism is one of the last barriers against the collapse of democracy in Brazil and in many other countries struggling with an avalanche of lies. Meticulously checked information, careful and balanced reporting, and in-depth investigations are the only hope to bring back reality to many countries where facts became malleable and often secondary to opinions and beliefs.”
This is true in India too. We have seen gross under-reporting of the rate of COVID-19 infections and mortality. We have seen numbers, including on the availability of vaccines, being fudged. We are in an unenviable position where the Union government has issued a directive asking the States not to divulge the details about the vaccine stock in hand as these details are “sensitive information”.
Ms. Mello pointed out that today, the muzzling of the press has taken on a different hue. She called it “censorship by noise and defamation”. It is a trait that has been normalised in India. She said: “Censorship, in this new world, doesn’t require the suppression of information. On the one hand, populist leaders flood social media, messaging apps, and the internet in general with the version of facts they want to prevail – so that it drowns out investigations and negative news. It’s the so-called censorship by noise. Then, for that manipulation of public opinion to succeed, these digital populist leaders need to delegitimise professional journalism.”
The act of delegitimising professional journalism undermines news media’s status as the fourth estate and denies it the crucial watchdog role. This blatant institutional capture not only ruptures our democratic fabric but also irreparably damages it.