World update: September 1 2020
Stories from Iran, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and more
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BIG ANNOUNCEMENT (PLEASE READ)
Yesterday on Twitter I teased a big announcement about a new Foreign Exchanges project that could mark the start of a new phase in this newsletter’s growth. So here it is. I am extremely pleased to announce that FX is bringing a new writer on board as a regular columnist on US foreign policy and international relations more broadly. Daniel Bessner (you can find him on Twitter) is the Anne H. H. and Kenneth B. Pyle Associate Professor in American Foreign Policy at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute, and a contributing editor at Jacobin. He’s been widely published and you can find his book, Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual at great booksellers like Powell’s. He’s also been on our podcast. He brings a wealth of knowledge and a valuable perspective to the table and I know you’re going to appreciate what he’ll add to FX.
I’ll let Daniel introduce himself to you in more detail in the coming days and his first column should be appearing soon, but right now I want to share a bit about what he’ll be doing. As a columnist, Daniel will be writing about US foreign policy and international relations in more depth than I am able to offer in these already-too-long news updates. As a scholar of the history of US foreign policy, he’ll be able to dive into the underpinnings of why things are the way they are and how they got to be that way. And as someone who has a background in the theory behind international relations, he’ll be able to give us all a more thorough grounding in the intellectual framework lying behind much of what you read here every day. As I say, this is the start of a new phase for FX and one that will help you better understand the world, which is our goal here.
Now here’s the “but” part. Right now Daniel and I have outlined a six-part series in which he’ll dig into international relations from a left perspective and with a view toward giving all of us (or at least those of us who are laypeople when it comes to IR) a stronger grounding in the field. But (see what I did there?) beyond that series my ability to sustain Daniel’s presence here in the long term depends on you. If you’re a subscriber to FX, first of all thank you, but secondly I need you to get out there and beat the drum about this place. Tell your friends, tell your families, preach on social media, anything you can do to get more eyeballs on this newsletter. And if you’re not subscribed, please consider doing so today. Ultimately it’s subscriber support that’s going to make it possible for Daniel to keep writing for FX and maybe—dare I say it—for me to bring in additional writers on other critical topics. To celebrate this new project and help make it a little easier to subscribe, I’m offering 20% off your first year here at FX if you subscribe by the end of this month. And if you’re a student, you can use your educational email and sign up anytime for half the price by using this link:
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more information!
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
August 31, 1907: Britain and Russia sign the Anglo-Russian Convention, which closes arguably the last chapter in their “Great Game” rivalry in Asia, at least until the 1917 Russian Revolution. The two empires, having already agreed to mark Afghanistan as the frontier between their domains, further agreed to divide Iran into spheres of influence (Russian in the north, British in the south), to recognize Afghanistan as part of Britain’s sphere of influence, and to agree mutually not to interfere in Tibetan affairs.
August 31, 1957: The Malayan Declaration of Independence is proclaimed by Tunku Abdul Rahman, then-Chief Minister of the Federation of Malaya. The declaration acknowledged the end of the British protectorate over the nine Malay states that made up the federation. This date is annually commemorated as Malaysian Independence Day, but there is a bit of controversy about that because Malaysia didn’t come into existence until 1963, when the former British colonies of North Borneo, Sarawak, and Singapore joined the federation (Singapore left a couple of years later). Some people in North Borneo and Sarawak have issues with celebrating an event that took place before they were actually part of the country as their “independence day.”
September 1, 1880: A decisive British victory at the Battle of Kandahar ends the Second Anglo-Afghan War. British authorities deposed Afghan Emir Ayub Khan and replaced him with his more agreeable cousin, Abdur Rahman Khan.
English painter Richard Caton Woodville’s 92nd Highlanders and 2nd Gurkhas storming the Gaudi Mullah Sahibdad at Kandahar 1 September 1880 depicts a British attack on a village near Kandahar during the battle (Wikimedia Commons)
September 1, 1939: Nazi Germany invades Poland. The German offensive began a week after the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and the USSR and a day after its ratification by the Supreme Soviet. The initial German invasion overwhelmed the outgunned Polish military, and a subsequent invasion by the Red Army on September 17 sealed Poland’s fate and resulted in a partition of the country. The invasion is regarded as the start of World War II, as it triggered French and British declarations of war against Germany.
September 1, 1969: The 1969 Libyan Coup
Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for September 1:
25,892,091 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (6,845,282 active, +260,004 since yesterday)
860,323 reported fatalities (+5899 since yesterday)
2830 confirmed coronavirus cases (+65)
116 reported fatalities (+4)
Monday night’s Israel missile strike (OK, “alleged” Israeli missile strike) on several military positions south of Damascus killed at least 11 people according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. One of those was a civilian, along with three Syrian soldiers and seven pro-government foreign paramilitaries. It’s possible there were Hezbollah fighters involved but so far there’s been no indication one way or the other.
271,705 confirmed cases (+1572)
6417 reported fatalities (+47)
Turkish officials claim they’ve arrested an Islamic State “emir” whom they’re calling “Mahmut O.” and who they say was involved in planning several “plots” in Turkey. Among those, allegedly, was a plan to kidnap prominent Turkish politicians. IS has carried out a few attacks in Turkey but it’s mostly used Turkey as a hub for activities in Iraq and Syria, which led a few years back to allegations that Ankara was turning a blind eye to the organization because it was fighting Syrian Kurds. So I would take these claims with a grain of salt.
The Turkish government also on Tuesday announced that it’s extending the Oruç Reis’s mission exploring for offshore energy deposits in the eastern Mediterranean until at least the middle of this month. That’s the second time it’s extended this particular operation, amid escalating tension with Greece over the potential ownership of those deposits. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told reporters on Tuesday that Turkey is seeking negotiations with Greece to find “a joint solution that involves sitting around the table to negotiate with all sides in the eastern Mediterranean, for everyone to benefit from the eastern Mediterranean resources in a just manner.” This is a nice sentiment, and it’s one Çavuşoğlu has offered previously, only to have his boss essentially undercut it the next day. I don’t know if the two of them are getting their signals crossed or if they’re intentionally trying to do a “good cop, bad cop” thing.
17,777 confirmed cases (+469)
171 reported fatalities (+4)
Lebanon celebrated the anniversary of formation of the French Mandate of Greater Lebanon on Tuesday with a visit by none other than French President Emmanuel Macron, who coincidentally still seems to regard the place as a French colony of sorts. Macron toured the place, including the Beirut seaport that’s still in ruins after last month’s explosion, and met with a few political leaders like President Michel Aoun and former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. He then reiterated what’s become a sort of universal call for political reform, a concept vague enough that pretty much everybody can get on board until it comes time to start talking about specifics.
376,894 confirmed cases (+1682)
21,672 reported fatalities (+101)
A new month means a new presidency at the United Nations Security Council and potentially an opening for the Trump administration to jam through its invocation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal’s “snap back” provision. But this month’s president, Niger, made it clear Tuesday that it agrees with the decision of last month’s president, Indonesia, to ignore the administration’s move. The Trump administration seems prepared to declare the full reimposition of UN sanctions against Iran on September 20 (one month after it attempted to trigger the “snap back” mechanism) regardless of what the council does or doesn’t do. The only question is whether the rest of the world will go along with that interpretation.
Meanwhile, representatives of the remaining participants in the 2015 accord met in Vienna on Tuesday and agreed to…well, keep on keeping on, mostly. They all came to the conclusion that the deal is nice and should be preserved, even though the US withdrawal in 2018 and deliberate attempts to destroy it have mostly rendered the whole agreement void in a practical sense.
38,196 confirmed cases (+31)
1406 reported fatalities (+4)
At least three Afghan soldiers were killed Tuesday when the Taliban attacked a military base in the city of Gardez, in Afghanistan’s Paktia province. Two Taliban fighters were also killed in the clash. On a more positive note, the Taliban and the Afghan government have resumed the release of the last names on their respective lists of prisoners to be freed as a precursor to peace talks. Kabul had suspended its release program last month over complaints that the Taliban wasn’t reciprocating. Assuming the last few prisoners are released with no hold ups, that should clear the last roadblock to negotiations.
3,766,108 confirmed cases (+78,169)
66,460 reported fatalities (+1025)
AFP is reporting that Chinese border forces killed an Indian special forces soldier late Saturday, amid renewed tension along the “Line of Actual Control” separating India’s Ladakh region from China’s Aksai Chin region. Neither side has acknowledge the killing, perhaps in an effort to calm things down, though both have acknowledged there was a confrontation (with each blaming the other for provoking it, of course).
224,264 confirmed cases (+3483)
3597 reported fatalities (+39)
In a televised cabinet meeting on Tuesday Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he’d ordered his customs bureau to “shoot and kill” alleged drug smugglers. Indeed, it seems he expressed some dismay that they weren’t already doing so. Duterte’s spree-killing-by-proxy program, which is ostensibly about curtailing drugs but in reality is a green light to Philippine cops to whack anybody they want under the justification that it was about curtailing drugs, has resulted in over 5700 extrajudicial murders since he took office in 2016. His suppression of political opposition has been so thorough that he now apparently feels comfortable openly encouraging more murders without any fear that he might suffer for it.
85,058 confirmed cases (+10) on the mainland, 4823 confirmed cases (+12) in Hong Kong
4634 reported fatalities (unchanged) on the mainland, 90 reported fatalities (+1) in Hong Kong
Mongolians across China are protesting a decision by the Chinese government to convert the language of instruction in schools in Inner Mongolia from Mongolian to Mandarin. After a transitional period the schools will apparently operate bilingually to some extent, as students will still be able to take classes in Mongolian, but their primary language will be Mandarin. Given Xi Jinping’s substantial record of coercing the assimilation of China’s minority populations, this could be the first step of a more comprehensive and more troubling campaign.
Elsewhere, the US Defense Department has produced its 2020 report on China’s military capacity and, well, this is kind of funny:
The Trump administration and China hawks throughout the US national security establishment have been harping on an unsubstantiated allegation that China is secretly on a crash course to dramatically increase the size of its nuclear arsenal, even though there’s no evidence that China even has enough nuclear material for something like that, let alone that it’s used that material to build a vast number of new weapons. Now the Pentagon has produced a new estimate of the size of China’s nuclear stockpile that’s below what even non-hawkish analysts have estimated. Even if we were to treat the dubious projection that China plans to double that stockpile over the next decade, that would still mean its total arsenal would be thousands of weapons under what the United States has.
68,392 confirmed cases (+527)
1296 reported fatalities (+17)
It seems that Chief Cabinet Minister Suga Yoshihide is the favorite to succeed outgoing Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō when their Liberal Democratic Party elects a new leader later this month. Suga has now won the support of both Abe and Deputy Prime Minister Aso Taro, who are the biggest power brokers within the party, with Abe casting Suga as the “continuity” candidate in the race.
14,624 confirmed cases (+658)
242 reported fatalities (+5)
Reuters reported an explosion in Tripoli on Tuesday morning that local media apparently attributed to a suicide bomber. But that’s the last I’ve seen of the story, so I have no idea if it actually was a bombing or whether there were any casualties.
2777 confirmed cases (+1)
126 reported fatalities (unchanged)
The French military force in Mali as part of its “Operation Barkhane” mission reported Tuesday that it accidentally killed a civilian in an incident near the city of Gao. Whoopsie! Apparently the French soldiers ordered a bus to slow down for some reason and, when it didn’t, fired warning shots to get the driver to stop. Two of those shots ricocheted off of the road and into the bus, wounding two people and killing one. Operation Barkhane is a French effort to counter jihadist violence in the Sahel, and given its apparent lack of success you could probably make the case that they should just pack up and go. At least that way they won’t open fire on any more civilian buses in the region.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
10,104 confirmed cases (+7)
259 reported fatalities (+1)
A dispute over the nomination of Ronsard Malonda—an ally of former Congolese President Joseph Kabila—to head the DRC’s electoral commission has apparently brought the already tenuous alliance between Kabila’s Common Front for Congo (FCC) and current President Felix Tshisekedi to its lowest point yet. At World Politics Review, the International Crisis Group’s Nelleke van de Walle offers further details:
When Tshisekedi’s supporters took to the streets in July to decry what they saw as Kabila’s attempts to impose his decisions on the country, they were tear-gassed and beaten by officers of the National Police, which is packed with Kabila allies. On July 9, security forces forcibly dispersed crowds that had gathered in multiple cities, organized by Tshisekedi’s political party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, to protest Malonda’s nomination. According to the United Nations Human Rights Office, at least two people were killed by security forces—one in the capital, Kinshasa, and one in the southeastern city of Lubumbashi. A police officer was also killed amid the unrest.
The opposition Lamuka coalition, which is led by political heavyweights Jean-Pierre Bemba, Moise Katumbi and Martin Fayulu, then called for more protests. Fayulu was a 2018 presidential candidate, and in fact still claims to be the true winner of the election. On July 13, Bemba, a former rebel leader and popular former vice president, led thousands of demonstrators in the streets of Kinshasa. Days later, Tshisekedi rejected Malonda’s appointment, citing a lack of consensus. After that, it was the FCC’s turn to take to the streets; on July 23, it mobilized thousands of its own supporters, who were allowed to protest without police harassment.
The July events showed just how unstable the current governing arrangement is. Tshisekedi is president, but Kabila still wields significant political clout behind the scenes. The FCC has an overwhelming majority in both houses of parliament, and also controls many key Cabinet positions, including the premiership. Kabila also commands loyalty across the security services and among officials tied to the state-run mining company, Gecamines. This has made it difficult for Tshisekedi to pursue his agenda. After a slow first year in office that delivered limited achievements, he has been trying to distance himself from Kabila and to dismantle his predecessor’s influence network.
71,962 confirmed cases (+199)
686 reported fatalities (+5)
The Trump administration is reportedly weighing sanctions against seven Belarusian officials alleged to have helped rig last month’s presidential election and/or to have participated in a violent crackdown against subsequent protesters. It may also be preparing sanctions against Russian officials if Moscow intervenes to try to protect Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko from the protesters calling for his resignation. Thousands of students skipped the first day of the Belarusian school year on Tuesday in order to join those protests, following a request from opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Also on Tuesday, Tikhanovskaya upbraided a couple of her fellow opposition leaders for forming a new political party, which she suggested would distract from the immediate goal of ousting Lukashenko from office.
1490 confirmed cases (+2)
21 reported fatalities (+1)
While it mulls imposing sanctions on Belarus, the Trump administration is readying to lift the US arms embargo on Cyprus for “non-lethal defence articles and services.” The US imposed the embargo in 1987 to pressure Greek and Turkish Cypriots to reconcile. It’s obviously failed in that respect, but leaving it in place has avoided tension with Turkey, which supports the claims of separatist Turkish Cypriots and reacted poorly to the news that Washington will start sending military gear to the Greek Cypriot government.
ORGANIZATION OF AMERICAN STATES
An ombudswoman for the Organization of American States is facing criticism that she assisted Secretary General Luis Almagro in a widely condemned effort to remove the region’s top human rights official, The Associated Press has learned.
Neida Perez is required to operate independently from the Washington-based organization’s leadership to act as a sounding board for its employees and act as an impartial arbiter to resolve workplace disputes.
But in recent days, she stepped into the middle of a bitter feud between Almagro and the leadership of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, or IACHR, the region’s top rights watchdog.
Almagro on Aug. 15 informed the IACHR that he would block its unanimous decision taken seven months earlier to extend Brazilian rights activist Paulo Abrão’s mandate as head of the autonomously run commission. The decision came on the same day Abrão’s four-year contract was set to expire.
With Perez’s help—which she’s not really supposed to provide as ombudsman—Almagro reportedly compiled a justification for firing Abrão based on a number of complaints by IACHR employees. He may well have run a hostile workplace, but whether he did or didn’t, having the OAS head step in and undo a decision made by IACHR leaders sets an extremely troubling precedent, especially when it involves the removal of a human rights activist known to have irritated right-wing governments in Colombia and Brazil—two governments whose commitment to human rights is, let’s say, open to question. Given Almagro’s track record of favoring right-wing governments in the Americas, even to the point of teeing up last year’s Bolivian military coup, there are understandable questions about his motives in ousting Abrão.
3,952,790 confirmed cases (+41,889)
122,681 reported fatalities (+1166)
The lead prosecutor in Brazil’s sprawling “Operation Car Wash” corruption investigation, Deltan Dallagnol, resigned from that gig on Tuesday amid speculation that the whole operation is about to be shut down. He’ll be reassigned to another federal prosecutorial post. Brazilian conservatives have welcomed “Car Wash” when it has gone after their opponents, but the investigation has also ensnared many of them and now, with a far right government in power, as far as they’re concerned the whole project is more trouble than it’s worth.
599,560 confirmed cases (+3719)
64,414 reported fatalities (+256)
New polling suggests that Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s public support is rising despite the pandemic, driven in part by approval of his anti-corruption efforts. AMLO’s approval rating in a survey from the pollster Parametria stands at 65 percent, up from 54 percent in the same poll back in March.
6,257,571 confirmed cases (+41,979)
188,900 reported fatalities (+1164)
Finally, it may be putting the cart before the horse but many countries around the world have already signed on to a World Health Organization-led program meant to ensure wide access to any successful COVID-19 vaccine. You’ll never guess which country has decided to go its own way:
The plan, which is co-led by the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and Gavi, the vaccine alliance, was of interest to some members of the Trump administration and is backed by traditional U.S. allies, including Japan, Germany and the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union.
But the United States will not participate, in part because the White House does not want to work with the WHO, which President Trump has criticized over what he characterized as its “China-centric” response to the pandemic.
“The United States will continue to engage our international partners to ensure we defeat this virus, but we will not be constrained by multilateral organizations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organization and China,” said Judd Deere, a spokesman for the White House.
The Covax decision, which has not been previously reported, is effectively a doubling down by the administration on its bet that the United States will win the vaccine race. It eliminates the chance to secure doses from a pool of promising vaccine candidates — a potentially risky approach.
Apart from increasing the chance that the US could be left completely high and dry, this decision also squashes any semblance of global solidarity against the pandemic. This could be relevant if, say, there are multiple successful vaccines developed and some US patients might respond better to one produced overseas, or if the US hoards its own vaccine and winds up slowing down a global economic recovery. But hey, America First, or whatever! Go Team!