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World roundup: May 20-21 2023
Stories from China, Sudan, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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I once again have a commitment this evening, so today’s roundup is coming out earlier than usual and sans voiceover. I will cover anything that gets missed in tomorrow’s roundup. Thanks for reading!
THIS WEEKEND IN HISTORY
May 20, 1498: Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrives at the port of Calicut (modern Kozhikode), completing his expedition from Lisbon around the African coast to India. Da Gama, who was expecting to extract favorable trading concessions from the ruler of Calicut, found instead that his token gifts were too shabby to win him any goodwill and Muslim traders spread scandalous gossip about the Portuguese arrivals. He left with only a smattering of local trade goods, but needless to say the opening of the trade route had some very long-lasting repercussions.
May 20, 1927: Abdulaziz Al Saud, also known as Ibn Saud, concludes the Treaty of Jeddah with the United Kingdom. Under the terms of the treaty, the UK recognized both Ibn Saud’s independence and his sovereignty over the kingdoms of the Nejd and the Hejaz, which he merged into Saudi Arabia in 1932.
May 21 878: The Aghlabid Emirate captures the Sicilian city of Syracuse after a roughly nine month siege.
May 21, 1799: Napoleon lifts his failed siege of Acre and withdraws to Egypt (and, not long after that, to France).
May 21, 2006: Montenegro holds a referendum on leaving what remained of Yugoslavia and becoming an independent state. Amid allegations of irregularities, 55.5 percent voted in favor of independence, which was just over the 55 percent needed to pass the referendum. May 21 is now annually commemorated as Independence Day in Montenegro.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
In an Al Jazeera news report, Syria specialist Joshua Landis discusses the importance of the Captagon trade to the Syrian government’s normalization efforts:
The only way to wean al-Assad and Syria off this illegal [drug] trade is to allow him to resume legal trade, otherwise, he will have no incentive to give up considerable revenue from Syria’s biggest export, according to Joshua Landis, director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
“Assad has already been leveraging the Captagon trade. It is a major reason for Jordan to decide that the status quo was not working and was unsustainable. The same is true for Saudi Arabia,” he told Al Jazeera.
Landis said that while many believed al-Assad had been “defanged” by the civil war, the sanctions, the division of the country, and the denial of access to Syria’s oil and gas, the Captagon trade shows that he is not to be ignored and can inflict harm, allowing him to demand a steeper price to curb the smuggling.
“For Assad, forgoing the drug revenue, which is Syria’s largest export, will require the restoration of legitimate trade. He will demand the lifting of sanctions and the return of his territory,” Landis said.
An estimated 90,000-100,000 people turned out across Israel on Saturday for another weekly protest against the Israeli government’s proposed judicial overhaul. It’s now been 20 straight weeks for these demonstrations, though the Israeli government’s recent violence in the West Bank and Gaza has had the effect (a cynic might say intentionally) of pushing these domestic political tensions into the background.
The Bahraini government announced on Saturday that it will end the diplomatic boycott of Lebanon it began back in October 2021. Back then the Bahrainis, as more or less subsidiaries of the Saudi monarchy, cut ties with Beirut in solidarity with the folks in Riyadh, who were angry that then-Lebanese Foreign Minister George Kordahi had the temerity to criticize the massive crime against humanity that is the Saudi war in Yemen. The Saudis restored full relations with Lebanon in April 2022 but the Bahrainis were apparently so upset it’s taken them over a full year to follow suit. It’s unclear whether the Lebanese government noticed.
According to Iranian state media, unknown gunmen trying to cross the border from Pakistan killed five border guards and wounded two others in southeastern Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province. I’m not entirely clear whether this incident took place on Sunday or was only reported on Sunday. There’s no indication as to the identity of the attackers, who did take casualties though it’s also not clear how many. The province sees activity from Islamist militants, Baluch separatists, and traffickers so the possibilities are numerous. The Pakistani and Iranian governments have recently taken some steps to start developing the border, which could eventually help to lower the frequency of these kinds of incidents.
East Timorese voters headed to the polls on Sunday with the country’s two largest parties, Fretilin and CNRT, thought to be in a tight race. CNRT candidate José Ramos-Horta won last year’s presidential election, which may suggest voters are leaning in that party’s direction though of course it’s by no means conclusive. A coalition led by CNRT also won the 2018 election, but it fragmented in 2020 amid a number of crises and Fretilin became the largest member of a new coalition with three other parties.
This weekend’s G7 leaders summit in the Japanese city of Hiroshima generated somewhat mixed messaging with respect to China, one of the two main topics (along with the war in Ukraine) on the agenda. In his post-summit press conference, US President Joe Biden said that The Gang had agreed to “de-risk and diversify” with respect to China, or in other words to develop alternative global supply pathways that are not dependent on Chinese manufacturing. This isn’t a bad idea on its own merits, in that a more diversified supply network would in theory be less susceptible from shocks due to, oh, let’s say pandemics and climate change just to pick two random things. The thing is, the US government likes to talk about diversification when it comes to China, but its policies (heavy on export controls in particular) look at lot more like divestment—and not just unilateral divestment but divestment that is forced upon the rest of the world as well. Biden also suggested that he might meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the near future and that an overall improvement in US-Chinese relations might be in the offing.
While he was in Japan, Biden also met with the other leaders of “The Quad” (Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi). This confab had to take place on the G7 sidelines, since ongoing debt ceiling negotiations forced Biden to cancel next week’s planned Quad summit in Australia. Here the message on China was somewhat more hostile, with the group’s post-meeting statement saying in part that “we strongly oppose destabilising or unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo by force or coercion.” There’s nothing specifically about China in there but it’s obviously a reference to both Taiwan and Chinese maritime claims in the Pacific. They took a few more veiled shots at Chinese policy, including the Belt and Road Initiative.
The Sudanese military and “Rapid Support Forces” paramilitary group have agreed to yet another “humanitarian ceasefire,” this one for seven days starting Monday evening, local time. Before you ask, there is no particular reason to believe they’ll honor this ceasefire any more than they’ve honored the many ceasefire agreements they’ve made over the past five weeks. However this time the ceasefire comes in the form of a signed document, so it’s on paper, and it appears the two sides have agreed to some sort of monitoring program set up by the US and Saudi Arabia (who mediated the ceasefire). The differences have sparked some hope that this deal will actually hold and that it will permit the movement of humanitarian relief to civilians who have been trapped by the fighting.
There’s no way to know if the agreement will hold until Monday evening rolls around, but in the meantime there are reports of heavy fighting around the Wadi Seidna Air Base just north of Khartoum. That’s the military’s main air facility, which it’s used to carry out innumerable airstrikes against RSF fighters in the capital and its sister cities. If the RSF were to take it before the ceasefire goes into effect (assuming it does go into effect) it could have a significant impact on the conflict.
An apparent jihadist attack on a village in western Burkina Faso’s Boucle du Mouhoun region killed at least 12 civilians on Friday. Nothing seems to be known about the attackers. There have also been reports of a series of jihadist attacks on villages in Burkina Faso’s Centre-Est region over the past several days.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
An anti-government protest in Kinshasa turned violent on Saturday when police brought out the tear gas and other coercive measures. At least 12 protesters and, reportedly, three police officers were detained and many more injured in the scuffling. The demonstration was organized by opposition parties and fueled by frustration with the state of the Congolese economy and the precarious security situation across much of the country, particularly in the east.
The Russian government has issued arrest warrants for several International Criminal Court officials, including lead prosecutor Karim Khan, in retaliation for the ICC’s decision to issue an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin, among others, back in March. This decision drew an expression of “deep concern” from the ICC’s member states on Friday, though the chances of anything coming from these warrants are quite slim.
The Wagner Group appears at long last to have secured control of the entire city of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk oblast. Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin announced the capture of the city on Saturday, and Putin later congratulated Wagner and the regular Russian military for their success. Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelensky during his visit to the G7 summit, are denying the claim, but it seems fairly clear that even if the Ukrainians are still technically holding territory within city limits, that territory is so small as to be essentially irrelevant. Zelensky also described Bakhmut as “destroyed” after nearly months of Russian assaults, which seems tantamount to acknowledging that the city has been lost to the Ukrainians. There’s no independent confirmation either way.
It’s unclear what will come of this development. Prigozhin suggested on Sunday that Wagner’s forces will withdraw from Bakhmut, and the Russian forces that replace them may be under some immediate pressure given recent Ukrainian advances in areas around the city. It’s probably a stretch to call Bakhmut strategically vital (note that I’m not saying it doesn’t have value, just that this probably isn’t a decisive development), but taking it is the first real Russian success in months and puts them closer to controlling all of Donetsk. But it remains to be seen how quickly, or even whether, they’ll be able to follow up on this gain.
Anyone who’s concerned that Ukraine is now most likely going to be getting F-16s in the not too distant future should be pleased to know that Zelensky has promised Joe Biden that Ukraine won’t use the planes to strike targets in Russia. Glad we settled that. It’s questionable how big an impact the aircraft will actually have on the conflict, especially since it’s going to take months to a) train Ukrainian pilots to fly them and b) provide the Ukrainians with the planes themselves along with everything else they need (including ammunition) to actually use them. Once all those things are in place, there will still be reasons to doubt how effective the F-16s can be in the Ukrainian environment. But I think debating their potential effectiveness misses the point of this gesture, which is really about demonstrating the West’s Commitment to Ukraine more than actually changing the course of the war. I’m not even sure the logic of boosting defense contractor revenues, which surely lies behind past Western arms deliveries to Ukraine (including the one Biden announced on Sunday), really applies here. All the European countries that could conceivably supply F-16s to Ukraine are already in the process of replacing their F-16 fleets with F-35s. In this particular regard, their money has already been spent.
Results are still coming in from Sunday’s Greek parliamentary election but so far it’s looking like, as expected, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ New Democracy party is winning but in danger of falling short of a majority under the electoral law in place for this vote. New Democracy actually appears to be outperforming its polling, with the opposition Syriza party badly underperforming, but it may still land short of the mark. If this result holds Mitsotakis could pursue a coalition government, but if he’s set on a sole majority he could also insist on a snap election later this year. That vote would be held under a new electoral law that makes it easier to achieve a majority.
Unknown gunmen killed at least six people in what appears to be another drug-related attack in Ecuador on Saturday night. The shooting took place in the coastal town of Montañita, in Santa Elena province, and comes just two day after another mass shooting in neighboring Manabí province. Ecuadorean authorities attribute these events to rival gangs battling for territory.
A Guatemalan judge on Friday suspended the candidacy of businessman Carlos Pineda ahead of the country’s June 25 presidential election. The court determined that Pineda had not complied with electoral rules regarding his nomination. He may be able to appeal or take other action to have the suspension lifted, but that’s unclear from the reporting. Recent polling had seen Pineda at the top of a fairly divided field, with numbers that would have put him in the August 20 runoff.
Finally, World Politics Review’s Andrew Gawthorpe outlines the potential risks of the Biden administration’s shift away from globalization for US allies and for the developing world:
The new Washington consensus also has troubling implications for Washington’s relations with the rest of the world. Although Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said that the U.S. will coordinate its actions with its allies “when possible,” the new international economic policy that Sullivan formally articulated last month has been wholly “Made in America,” not through a process of allied consultation.
As well as raising tensions with wealthy allies, which now have to compete with the United States’ subsidized industries, the Biden administration’s trade policy risks appearing hypocritical and callous to less developed nations. For decades, Washington decried Beijing’s industrial subsidies and restrictions on foreign investment, while browbeating developing nations into liberalizing their own economies. But now that globalization no longer seems to serve U.S. strategic interests, policymakers in Washington have turned against it.
U.S. subsidies make it harder for less-wealthy nations to develop competitive industries of their own, while also forcing them to make a stark geopolitical choice. If the new techno-industrial base that the Biden administration wants to construct is only accessible to the U.S. and its allies, then membership in the U.S.-led alliance system will be a prerequisite of enjoying its benefits. But given the changeable nature of U.S. foreign policy, countries like India and Brazil may be unwilling to reorient their foreign and domestic economic policy around a promise from Washington that could be withdrawn after any given election.
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