Asia/Africa update: April 4 2018



The Carnegie Endowment’s Paul Stronski looks at how Russia and China have, thus far, managed to avoid conflict over their competing interests in Central Asia. Russia has been very accommodating toward China’s Belt and Road Initiative, though to be sure it’s not like Moscow has the economic leverage to compete with Beijing. China, meanwhile, has been indulgent with respect to treating Russia as a world power and in promising that Belt and Road won’t conflict with Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union. Therein lies a potential problem:

But these promises are unlikely to be realised because the BRI and EEU are incompatible. BRI is a vision to connect multiple markets and reorient global trade with China as its engine. The EEU is an effort to create a single closed market that is dominated by Russia to enhance Moscow’s influence in the region in the face of continued encroachments from both Europe and China. With limited resources and a heavy political hand in the region, Russia is a much less attractive option than China. Compared to Beijing’s inclusive BRI framework, the EEU is an unhappy union of coerced membersand frequent trade spats.


Aware of Russian sensitivities about China’s growing power, Beijing smartly refrains from voicing any plans to develop a hard security footprint in the region. It has traditionally left that to Russia and instead pushes its role as a ‘soft’ security provider — one that brings security through economic investment. But China is now signalling it wants to play a more active security role in the region. Central Asia is the last buffer between it and the instability that is rocking much of the Muslim world at a time when Russia’s security sector is stretched thin by multiple military conflicts.


At least 21 people have been killed and over 200 injured after several days of clashes between Indian security forces, rebels, and civilian protesters in Kashmir.


Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe survived the no confidence vote against his government on Wednesday. There was reason to believe he wouldn’t, given that he’d officially lost the support of his party’s largest coalition partner, but in the end enough opposition legislators voted against the no confidence measure to save him. Now the question is whether Wickremesinghe can pull his coalition back together.


Rodrigo Duterte seems amenable to reopening peace talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines, and to that end he asked his cabinet on Wednesday to draw up a ceasefire with the rebel group.


Donald Trump’s trade war seems to be on. After he announced $50 billion in new tariffs on some 1300 Chinese goods on Tuesday, Beijing responded by outlining its own $50 billion tariff plan that would hit major US exports like soybeans, aircraft, and automobiles. You may notice that two of those products would disproportionately impact regions in which Trump did quite well in 2016, and that’s certainly no accident. The Chinese tariffs would also have a bigger impact, given that the US exports substantially less each year to China than China exports to the US–$50 billion represents about 10 percent of Chinese exports to the US, while it represents about a third of US exports to China. None of the proposed new tariffs have gone into effect yet and they won’t for several months as they’re reviewed. Trump insists that this is all fine:

Which is of course extremely dumb. But to be fair to Trump, he’s imposing these tariffs over China’s intellectual property policies, which are legitimately terrible. Trump is getting near-universal condemnation from the free trade crowd, and since I don’t trust Donald Trump and I don’t trust the free trade devotees I’m pretty much waiting to see how this plays out. Trump occasionally verges on being right, even if it’s for the wrong reasons. Maybe this is one of those cases.


Arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis explains why the vaguely defined term “denuclearization,” rather than the less ambiguous “disarmament,” is used in the North Korean context, and why its vagueness could either be the reason negotiations with North Korea succeed or the reason they collapse:

In his meeting last week with President Xi Jinping of China, Mr. Kim reportedly committed to denuclearization. But when he does so, he is not offering to abandon the bomb, at least not without very big changes like the withdrawal of American troops from the Korean Peninsula and the signing of a peace treaty. He is terrified of ending up like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi, two dictators who abandoned their weapons programs only to be forced from office.


When Mr. Kim says that the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was his father’s dying wish, he’s repeating a line that his father used, too. It’s a nice thing to say, but it can’t happen outside of a comprehensive settlement that ensures the Kim family’s rule in perpetuity. Rather than agreeing to disarm, Mr. Kim is saying he is willing to engage in a process, headed toward an ambiguous goal.


How will Mr. Trump react when he figures this out? Already there are reports that members of the White House staff are uncomfortable with the idea that he might travel to Pyongyang, because they understand that any discussion of denuclearization between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim might well lead the president to accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, if only tacitly.



The United Nations aims to hold a series of local public consultations with Libyans across the country over the next several weeks in its effort to stabilize the country enough to hold a national election by the end of the year. The opinions gathered in these sessions–there are 20 scheduled including five in usually ignored southern Libya–will contribute to the construction/restoration of national institutions.

At LobeLog, Haki Abazi argues that the international community is coming at Libya from the wrong direction, trying to arrange a national election when it should be organizing local elections first and building up from there:

A majority of Libyans respect their municipal authorities, which are more-or-less functional. The international community should focus on strengthening capacity at that level. That means organizing elections municipality by municipality, concentrating on the monitoring of electoral campaigns and the vetting of representatives by community councils and the GNA. There’s no need to rush with this bottom-up approach. Enough time should be given for the best candidates to emerge who can be elected with the confidence of the voters.


A local sustainable development plan should have three main pillars. Local government should be functional, accountable, and transparent. Civil society organizations—including a vibrant private sector and local media with a focus on investigative journalism, should be well funded and supported. And there should be a focus on the delivery of services like education, health care, water and sewage waste management, and electricity. Donors should prioritize the rehabilitation of infrastructure across the country to deliver these services. Strengthening these three pillars of local development would decrease the space for armed conflict and the spread of the Islamic State and other illegal armed groups.


Sierra Leonian authorities on Wednesday declared opposition candidate Julius Maada Bio the winner of Saturday’s presidential runoff with 51.8 percent of the vote. He was sworn in as president Wednesday night. Bio defeated the candidate of the ruling All People’s Congress, Samura Kamara. The whole election was marred by accusations of irregularities, voter and media intimidation, and violence. Bio, a former general in the Sierra Leonian army, briefly led the country in 1996 at the head of a military junta before restoring civilian rule. He’s since made a fortune in the business industry and won the presidency on his second attempt (he lost to outgoing President Ernest Bai Koroma in 2012).


Analyst Nizar Manek says that new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has a delicate balancing act ahead of him to try to appeal to his own Oromo community without raising fears among Ethiopia’s other ethnic communities that the Oromo are taking over the state:

For now, Abiy’s elevation to prime minister has quieted Ethiopia’s most confrontational voices. This could quell violent protests in Oromia, which intensified late last year amid severe clashes between security forces from Ethiopia’s Somali region and Oromo in eastern Ethiopia, triggering serious intraparty conflict within the EPRDF. In his speech, Abiy pledged to crack down on corruption, which, according to Jamil Abdisalam, the mayor of an Oromo town in the east, has been the primary cause of the violence that recently prompted approximately 1 million people to flee their homes. He attributed the disturbances to senior federal and military officials and their business associates who monopolize trade in black market dollars and contraband on the boundary.


All eyes are on Abiy’s next moves and whether he will manage to reorient the political system to give the Oromo the representation they demand and turn a one-party system into something more democratic. In Ethiopia’s complex and delicate ethnic federation, Abiy will be watched closely by proxies from myriad other ethnic groups and forces for any failings, and they may react negatively should they get the impression that Abiy is unilaterally working for the advantage of the Oromo. After all, the OPDO now controls the office of the prime minister, the post of speaker of parliament, and the presidency — nominally, the three most important positions in the state. Oromos can surely now become the most influential ethnic group.


The Cameroonian military says it has freed 18 hostages (12 Europeans, 8 Cameroonians) taken by what it called “secessionist terrorists” in the country’s southwestern anglophone region. The main secessionist group in that region, the Ambazonian Defence Force, is denying any involvement in their abduction.


Popular DRC opposition leader Moïse Katumbi may be prevented from running for president in this year’s believe-it-when-you-see-it election because he held Italian citizenship from 2000 through early 2017. DRC law forbids dual citizenship, and apparently anyone who accepts foreign citizenship and then renounces it has to petition authorities to regain DRC citizenship. This law doesn’t seem to be very well enforced, but since Katumbi is an opposition leader and should be considered the favorite to win the election according to polling, it probably will be enforced in his case.

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