Discover more from Foreign Exchanges
World roundup: June 15 2023
Stories from Iran, Japan, Papua New Guinea, and elsewhere
This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up today:
TODAY IN HISTORY
June 15, 1215: King John of England signs Magna Carta at Runnymede, under pressure from a group of rebellious barons. The document included provisions protecting church prerogatives and establishing protection from illegal imprisonment, a right to a speedy trial, and limitations on taxation (for the barons, not in general, though it’s since been interpreted more broadly). Instead of ending the rebellion the charter inflamed it, as John and a council of barons created to oversee its implementation quickly fell out and John had the document declared null by Pope Innocent III. This led to the First Barons’ War, in which the rebels and their French ally were defeated but young King Henry III (John had died during the war) and his regent, William Marshal, issued a revised Magna Carta as a concession to help end the unrest.
June 15, 1389: The Battle of Kosovo
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Israeli security forces killed one Palestinian man during an operation to demolish a house in the West Bank city of Nablus on Thursday. The house belonged to the family of a gunman accused of killing an Israeli soldier last year and its demolition was part of the Israeli government’s collective punishment program, which is illegal under international law for whatever that’s worth. Israeli officials say their soldiers came under fire during the operation and shot back in self defense.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition showed a bit of strain on Wednesday when four of its members defected to help elect the opposition’s candidate for the government’s judicial selection committee. Traditionally the committee’s two legislative members are split between the government and opposition, but the radical end of Netanyahu’s coalition had been insisting that he appoint both members and thereby shut the opposition out. Because of the turmoil, Netanyahu decided to delay the whole vote and ordered his coalition to vote against both candidates, but four Likud Party legislators joined the opposition instead. The government’s candidate was not elected and Netanyahu is obliged to hold another vote for that seat within the next 30 days. The committee is basically suspended until that seat is filled.
In the meantime, all of these machinations have prompted Israeli opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz to suspend their talks with Netanyahu over finding some sort of compromise to the judicial overhaul the government has been pursuing. There is widespread public opposition to that plan but that same extreme wing of Netanyahu’s coalition is insisting that the overhaul proceed without opposition support. It’s unclear how seriously Netanyahu was actually pursuing a compromise.
A decade ago, China attempted a similar project. The central leadership in Beijing encouraged a host of state-backed and private companies that owned local soccer teams to woo star European and Latin American soccer players, leading to a mini-migration of talent to Chinese clubs. But the initiative petered out amid corruption scandals and the collapse of some of the major companies involved, while the massive sums spent did little to boost China’s image abroad or buttress the sport at home. The Chinese men’s national soccer team has failed in the past two decades to even qualify for the World Cup.
The Saudis are hoping for a happier dividend. Whatever Riyadh’s rhetoric, both the golf and soccer gambits are undoubtedly demonstrations of an aspirational soft power. Stars like Ronaldo and Benzema command personal fanbases in the hundreds of millions online, many of whom may now see Saudi Arabia as the unfathomable wealthy abode where their heroes ply their trade.
Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston, points to a clear “strategy to turn the conversation onto topics that Saudi Arabia is much more comfortable with” and away from the skulduggery and human rights abuses that briefly dominated chatter in Washington in the wake of Khashoggi’s killing. The Saudi investments in the PGA Tour, Ulrichsen told me, give it access to “an affluent audience across the United States,” and “may change people’s opinions about what Saudi Arabia is and what Saudi Arabia may be doing.”
If it feels like we’ve been talking for a week now about reports that the US and Iranian governments are closing in on some sort of diplomatic agreement, that’s because we have been. Now The New York Times is reporting that an “informal, unwritten agreement” (in part, undoubtedly, to keep it out of the hands of the US Congress) could be “imminent,” based on comments from anonymous Iranian, Israeli, and US officials. Among its potential terms, the Iranian government would agree to:
limit its uranium enrichment to 60 percent or less
order its Iraqi and Syrian proxies to stop attacking US forces in those countries
curtail (but not end) its arms sales to Russia
The US, meanwhile, would agree to:
refrain from imposing new sanctions on Iran
stop seizing Iranian oil tankers at sea
forestall any plans to condemn Iran’s nuclear program at either the United Nations or the International Atomic Energy Agency
The two countries are also reportedly negotiating the release of three US nationals currently in Iranian custody in exchange for the release of billions of dollars in Iranian funds currently frozen by sanctions (though Iran would be limited to using those funds for “humanitarian” products like food and medicine). The US government as a matter of policy maintains the pretense of refusing to “negotiate” over prisoners, so this deal would have to be treated as two unrelated gestures that are also technically separate from the nuclear piece outlined above.
Eight Afghan provinces are reportedly dealing with a locust swarm that, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, is threatening to destroy as much as a quarter of Afghanistan’s annual wheat harvest (some 1.2 million metric tons). Needless to say the Afghan government lacks the financial or human capacity to counter this situation, which is only exacerbating the food insecurity that was already afflicting most Afghans before the locusts turned up. And unless appropriate measures are taken this year, next year could see a vastly larger and more destructive swarm.
Philippine security forces reportedly killed Abu Zacharia, leader of the Maute Group (sometimes known as “Islamic State in Southeast Asia”), in an operation on the island of Mindanao on Wednesday. Another senior Maute official was also killed, and Philippine authorities seem to believe the group may now be leaderless. Maute’s capabilities have been somewhat eroded in recent years and there are questions, for example, about whether it still has any real connection to Islamic State beyond branding and ideology.
The communications director of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Canadian national Bob Pickard, resigned his post on Wednesday while claiming that the organization “serves China’s interest.” In remarks to AFP, Pickard claimed that there is a “parallel” decision making structure within the bank that directs resources toward projects of geopolitical benefit to Beijing, even as its “public” structure maintains a more objective front. The bank, which was formed with Chinese leadership in 2014 as an alternative to institutions like the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, called Pickard’s allegations “baseless and disappointing.” Pickard subsequently claimed to Reuters that he was “advised” to flee China after announcing his resignation. The Canadian government, the AIIB’s only North American member state, announced on Wednesday that it’s suspending its involvement with the bank while it “investigates” Pickard’s various allegations.
The North Korean military fired off what appear to have been two short-range ballistic missiles on Thursday in response to ongoing US-South Korean military exercises. According to the Japanese Defense Ministry both projectiles splashed down in Japanese economic waters. Also on Thursday the Biden administration blacklisted two North Korean nationals living in China who have allegedly been procuring ballistic missile components on behalf of the North Korean and Iranian governments.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the Japanese government is nearing a decision to supply artillery rounds to Ukraine, which would break with the country’s post-World War II tradition of limiting exports of lethal military aid. Technically Tokyo would get around that tradition by shipping the rounds to the United States, with which it has a military alliance that includes, as of 2016, sharing ammunition. The US has depleted its own artillery stockpiles in service of the Ukrainian war effort, so in the strictest semantic sense those Japanese shells would refill US coffers. If some of those Japanese shells were to make their way to Ukraine from there, who would be really able to tell? This is similar to an arrangement the South Korean government has already made with Washington. Polling suggests that the Japanese public is uneasy about exporting weapons and ammunition, so these machinations are supposed to allay that unease while still allowing Japan to participate in arming Ukraine.
PAPUA NEW GUINEA
The defense cooperation agreement that the US and Papua New Guinean governments signed last month reportedly gives the US military “unimpeded access” to six PNG naval and air bases, including “exclusive use” of some parts of those facilities. In other words, the US has acquired for itself a very strategically positioned operating base in the event of a military conflict with China. One might say that it’s ironic or even hypocritical for the US to make these sorts of deals even as it warns Pacific nations against a supposedly encroaching Chinese military presence in the region, but what you have to remember is that many things that are Bad when China does them are actually Good when the US does them.
The government of Palau has reportedly asked the US to boost its military presence in that country in response to Chinese naval incursions into Palauan waters. Palauan President Surangel Whipps Jr. told Reuters on Thursday that he’s asked Washington to consider making more frequent maritime patrols of Palauan waters and possibly stationing US combat troops in Palau. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said that some Chinese ships have had to “shelter” in Palauan waters recently but denied that they had done anything untoward while there.
The Australian parliament is moving to block the construction of a new Russian embassy in Canberra over security concerns. An attempt by the National Capital Authority to evict the Russians from the site, where work began in 2011 but has still not been completed, failed in court, so authorities have turned to a legislative solution instead. The site is very close to the Australian parliament building so it is somewhat awkward to situate an embassy there, though it’s unclear whether it would be an issue if this were, say, the Canadian embassy rather than the Evildoing Russian embassy. The Russian government characterized the parliamentary effort as “Russophobic hysteria, which is now active in the countries of the collective West.”
Sudan’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have been blamed for the assassination and mutilation of a senior government official, amid growing reports of mass killings in the restive Darfur region in the country’s devastating war.
Khamis Abdallah Abbakar, the governor of West Darfur, was murdered this week just hours after he gave an interview to a Saudi-owned TV station in which he criticised the RSF and described a “genocide”.
The UN said “compelling eyewitness accounts attribute this act to Arab militias and the RSF”, while the Darfur Lawyers Association condemned the act of “barbarism, brutality and cruelty”.
The RSF has denied involvement in the assassination and in fact claims that it had placed Abbakar under a protective detail at his request. Why he would have requested RSF protection after accusing the group of attempting a “genocide” is unclear but I guess it’s best not to think too hard about such details.
The interim government of Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region says its investigation into the theft of humanitarian food aid has found multiple culprits, including federal government officials, regional government officials, and Eritrean soldiers. USAID and the UN World Food Program have suspended their food assistance to Ethiopia over the alleged misappropriation of that aid. Tigrayan officials say they’ve confirmed the theft of over 860 kilograms of wheat and 215,000 liters of cooking oil. They’ve apparently arrested seven people in connection with the allegations so far and have identified scores of additional suspects.
Speaking to reporters amid another meeting of the “Ukraine Defense Contact Group” on Thursday, senior US military officials tried to paint a positive picture about the Ukrainian counteroffensive’s thus-far minimal achievements:
Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it would be “very premature” to estimate how long Ukraine’s counteroffensive could take, considering that Russia has several hundred thousand troops dug in along the front lines. But he characterized the operation as “a very violent fight” that will “likely take a considerable amount of time — and at high cost.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, appearing alongside Milley during a news conference at NATO headquarters, noted that the Kremlin had begun to circulate battlefield imagery of smoldering Western combat vehicles. Ukrainian forces, he said, have the ability to recover damaged military equipment and repair it.
“The Russians have shown us [the] same five vehicles about a thousand times from 10 different angles,” Austin said, downplaying the significance of Ukraine’s losses so far in the counteroffensive. “Quite frankly, the Ukrainians … still have a lot of combat capability.” He added that whichever side is better able to sustain its combat forces “will probably have the advantage at the end of the day.”
Ukrainian officials say their forces have taken around 100 square kilometers of territory since the counteroffensive began. Russian officials, meanwhile, say the whole operation has failed, with heavy costs in terms of lives and materiel. As The Washington Post notes there’s no way to completely verify either of these claims, but then I’m not sure it matters much because even the rosy Ukrainian assessment isn’t all that rosy. The situation could change suddenly in one direction or another but there’s a reason Milley and Austin are emphasizing the likelihood of a very long, very drawn out conflict.
The Romanian parliament confirmed new Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu’s new cabinet on Thursday. The Social Democratic Party leader assumed the PM office this week under the terms of the power-sharing arrangement his party struck with the National Liberal Party back in 2021. Their coalition has been reduced from three to two parties, after the UDMR party quit on Wednesday to protest having been stripped of its cabinet posts in Ciolacu’s government.
The National Coalition Party, which won Finland’s parliamentary election back in April, has reached a coalition agreement with the far-right Finns Party as well as two smaller groups, the Swedish People’s Party and the Christian Democrats. The combined coalition will control 108 seats in the next legislative session—101 seats are necessary for a majority—and will see NCP boss Petteri Orpo take over from the outgoing Sanaa Marin as prime minister.
CNN reported on Thursday that a number of US government agencies and related institutions (including major universities) have been hit by a massive ransomware attack by what is believed to be a Russian network known as CLOP. The attack is apparently exploiting a vulnerability in a data transfer program known as MOVEit, and cybersecurity experts believe the exploit may have expanded to additional hacker groups beyond CLOP though much about this attack still seems uncertain.
Finally, the US State Department has released its 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report, which places 24 countries in the lowest (Tier 3) category:
The report listed 24 countries in “tier 3” or the lowest rating outlined in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. Per the US law, governments in the category may be “subject to certain restrictions on foreign assistance”.
Afghanistan, China, Venezuela, Turkmenistan, Myanmar, Belarus, Syria, Iran and North Korea are among the countries the US Department of State regularly ranks in the category.
But several more countries were downgraded, joining them in the lowest tier: Algeria, Chad, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea and Papua New Guinea. Those upgraded out of the group from 2022 were Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei.
Overall, there were 24 tier upgrades and 20 downgrades across the four-tier system, according to the State Department.
In addition, three countries were designated “special cases”: Libya, Somalia and Yemen. All three face situations where internationally recognised governments do not control large portions of the country.
Cambodia, Cuba, Curaçao, Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Macau, Nicaragua, Russia, Sint Maarten, and South Sudan round out the tier. Not to diminish the seriousness of human trafficking in these and many other places, I think it’s important to note how many of the countries on the Tier 3 list are just generally on Washington’s bad side—Afghanistan, Belarus, China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, Syria, you get the idea. It’s also important to note, for example, that the inclusion of Taiwan in the highest (Tier 1) category drew criticism from, among others, Greenpeace. Far be it from me to suggest that the State Department would allow politics to color its otherwise pristine human rights assessments, but if one were cynical enough to advance that claim there may be some evidence for it within this particular report.
Thanks for reading! Foreign Exchanges is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.