World update: August 13 2018

ASIA

CENTRAL ASIA

The Diplomat’s Umida Hashimova explains why Central Asian countries are still all-in on the Belt and Road Initiative even as some of China’s other partners are starting to balk at its onerous terms:

Central Asian countries are in need of large-scale investments and the BRI intends to do just that. So far, three railroad connections in the region have been completed under the BRI banner: Pop-Angren in Uzbekistan, Uzen-Bereket-Gorgan traversing Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran, and Khorgos dry port in Kazakhstan that connects China and Kazakhstan. The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railroad had been under discussion for almost 20 years but stalled over Kyrgyzstan’s complaints that the project lacked benefits for Bishkek. Recently the parties resumed cooperation with renewed energy to complete the project. The Pop-Angren railroad will become a part of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan rail link once completed. While the railroad is in the making, China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan recently launched a highway connecting the three countries. Although Tajikistan is not a part of any proposed rail link, China invested in the 350-km Dushanbe-Chanak highway that connects the north of the country with the capital, Dushanbe.

It is important to understand that for Central Asian states these infrastructure projects are not merely grand investments, but also tickets to join a global trade and geographic reorientation toward market economies in Western Europe, South and East Asia, and beyond. The Central Asians hope that Chinese aid will unite the region economically and open doors to larger projects with greater global attention.

The Central Asian republics have enough mineral wealth that it makes sense that they’re not worried about repaying Chinese loans. What they lack is the infrastructure to move that mineral wealth out to the world and turn it into actual wealth, which is what Belt and Road will provide.

AFGHANISTAN

The Battle for Ghazni continued for a fourth day on Monday, with the Afghan government moving about 1000 reinforcements into the city to try to bolster its defenses. It’s still hard to get a read on the state of the fighting inside the city but it is clear that the line coming from Kabul and the US over the weekend that Taliban fighters were on the run and hiding among the civilian population was a load of bullshit. The casualty count is likewise impossible to know at this point but the government has been citing figures of 100 dead Afghan soldiers and 30 dead civilians, against almost 200 dead Taliban. Tens of thousands of civilians are at risk not only from the fighting but from an acute lack of food brought on by the fighting.

If Ghazni falls it will cut the main highway connecting Kabul to Kandahar and southern Afghanistan. And while fighting within the city rages, the Taliban has been sweeping through the rest of the province with little trouble. Even if the city remains in government hands it could be effectively besieged by the Taliban unless that situation can be reversed. Casualty counts in these battles are sketchy as well but some estimates have as many as 200 additional Afghan forces killed in these provincial battles.

Meanwhile, a suicide bomber killed at least one person outside the offices of Afghanistan’s electoral commission in Kabul on Monday. The bomber targeted a protest against the commission on behalf of a would-be parliamentary candidate who had been disqualified from running.

On the plus side, the Taliban says that its recent talks with US representatives have been “very helpful” and the group is looking forward to more of them. People who were involved with the initial engagement in July say that the Taliban negotiators seemed more flexible on some key issues than they had been in the past. So I guess that’s something.

PAKISTAN

Pakistan’s new parliament met on Monday for its first session since the country’s general election last month. The body will elect a speaker on Wednesday and then vote on a prime minster, presumably Imran Khan, on Thursday. The speaker’s vote on Wednesday should show whether or not Khan has amassed enough votes to be made PM.

CHINA

The Chinese government is officially denying reports that it has detained one million or more Uyghurs in re-education camps in Xinjiang. Which would seem to contradict the sort-of grudging admission of just such a policy that was made over the weekend in the state-run newspaper Global Times.

NORTH KOREA

As expected, North and South Korean negotiators on Monday concluded an agreement for South Korean President Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang for a summit with Kim Jong-un. The meeting should take place sometime next month, though the two sides didn’t specify a date. The two leaders may discuss signing a formal treaty to end the Korean War, but they’ll have to convince the Trump administration to go along and at this point that looks like a heavy lift. Washington sees a Korean War treaty as a reward to Pyongyang that should only be given in return for denuclearization. Moon and Kim seem to feel differently. This is one area where the US and South Korea don’t seem to be in synch, which could lead to difficulties down the road.

AFRICA

LIBYA

Khalifa Haftar visited Niger last week, where it appears he was feted pretty much as one would fete a head of state, though Haftar is at best a military commander and in reality a warlord. A sign of things to come? A signal as to Haftar’s intentions? Who’s to say?

MALI

The results from Sunday’s Malian presidential runoff aren’t even in yet and already opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé has rejected them. That could prove awkward if he were to win…but he’s not going to win. Turnout was apparently extremely low, owing in large part to fears about insurgent violence at polling places, and international reporters say they witnessed a number of irregularities, like vote reports being signed before the count was completed. Cissé is still maintaining that he actually won the first round of voting last month, though official results had him at about 18 percent compared with incumbent Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s 41 percent.

ETHIOPIA

Ethiopian authorities say that “paramilitaries” from the country’s Somali region crossed into Oromia over the weekend and killed 40 people. It’s unclear why they carried out this attack or if it was connected with the violence that hit the Somali region earlier this month.

ERITREA

Eritrean activist Abraham Zere writes that the rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia has not so far produced any definitive benefits for Eritreans, just a lot of rumors stoked by President Isaias Afwerki’s usual secrecy:

Rumors have been floating around that there will be a mass release of political prisoners and journalists who have been held in custody since 2001. The actuality is unknown as the state seems content to keep people guessing. Other rumors have created a media uproar, such as the widely spread news that claims Eritrean troops are withdrawing from the borders. This news was based on a Facebook page run by two random individuals who are not affiliated with any official office. Pressed to reveal their sources and motives on Twitter, their response was, “the story was meant to be positive.” The same Facebook page had also announced that the most infamous military prison, Adi-Abieto, had also been closed due to the recent developments.

Reuters repeated similar unconfirmed news claiming that the time period for Eritrean national military service has been returned to its regular 18 months. The news story was based on information from family members whose children are in the military and cited President Afwerki’s recent speech in Sawa. In the speech, which I previously cited for its lack of content, the President did not discuss the subject. When the minister of information was asked to comment he neither denied nor confirmed it.

UGANDA

Ungandan opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi is saying that, while he was out campaigning on Monday, authorities opened fire on his car and killed his driver. His claim hasn’t been independently verified.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

Journalist Stuart Reid argues that while Joseph Kabila’s decision not to run for reelection is a positive step–provided he sticks to it and the DRC actually does hold elections this year–it is only the beginning of the challenges facing the country:

Almost certainly, only in a rigged election could Kabila’s chosen successor, [Emmanuel] Ramazani, win. That would be worrisome: he is a staunch Kabila loyalist whom the European Union sanctioned last year on account of his responsibility as interior minister for rounding up activists and committing other human rights violations. If Ramazani did become president, it’s possible Kabila could continue to pull the strings from behind the scenes, in the way that Vladimir Putin skirted term limits in Russia by serving as prime minister while Dmitry Medvedev was president. Indeed, there is some precedent for such an arrangement in Congo: For five years after Lumumba was ousted, a president held formal office while Mobutu acted as the power behind the throne. And Ramazani seems like good puppet material, since he has no political base of his own.

Yet even if one of the opposition candidates became president—which, to be clear, would be a very-good-case scenario—Congo would not be righted overnight. It will not be easy to strengthen the state and stamp out the county’s persistent conflicts, thus obviating the need for what is currently the world’s largest and most expensive U.N. peacekeeping mission. The problem of violence, while exacerbated by Kabila, predates him, as do the drivers of conflict, including ethnic tensions, foreign intervention, and resource competition.

MOZAMBIQUE

Mozambican authorities say they’ve identified six “ringleaders” of the Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama group that’s believed to be behind the Islamist violence that’s become a developing problem in the country’s northern Cabo Delgado province.

EUROPE

POLAND

The Baltic Sea resort town of Kołobrzeg was partially evacuated on Monday so that authorities could remove three unexploded 660 pound World War II bombs from just offshore.

AMERICAS

CUBA

The Cuban government has begun a period of public consultation over proposed changes to its 1976 constitution. The changes will be debated at thousands of local meetings through November, when parliament will vote to finalize the new constitution ahead of a national referendum in February. Opponents of the Cuban government are skeptical that the debates will actually influence the makeup of the constitution or even that people will feel free to state their real opinions.

CANADA

At LobeLog, Paul Pillar offers an apology to Canada:

Personal fondness for a foreign country plays such a large role for many participants in the debate about U.S. foreign policy (including policy toward the Middle East) that I should begin this piece with a disclosure: I like Canada. I grew up in the Detroit area, where heavily populated parts of the United States and Canada are separated only by a river. Canadian coins got freely mixed with U.S. ones in the change in our pockets. As a kid I watched Hockey Night in Canada on the Windsor television station. When I was going to college in New England, my usual travel route between home and school went through southern Ontario. As both a youngster and an adult, I have enjoyed many vacations in Canada. I have always found appealing the Canadian national temperament, with its politeness and openness.

The Trump administration’s treatment of Canada is deeply disturbing for reasons that go far beyond personal fondness. Americans owe Canadians an apology—if not for voting for Donald Trump, then for somehow making his abusive treatment of our northern neighbor possible.

UNITED STATES

Finally, the Defense Department is taking steps to add security considerations–particularly cybersecurity considerations–to its process for awarding contracts, alongside cost and performance:

The Pentagon has a new goal aimed at protecting its $100 billion supply chain from foreign theft and sabotage: to base its weapons contract awards on security assessments — not just cost and performance — a move that would mark a fundamental shift in department culture.

The goal, based on a strategy called Deliver Uncompromised, comes as U.S. defense firms are increasingly vulnerable to data breaches, a risk highlighted earlier this year by China’s alleged theft of sensitive information related to undersea warfare, and the Pentagon’s decision last year to ban software made by the Russian firm Kaspersky Lab.

On Monday, President Trump signed into a law a provision that would bar the federal government from buying equipment from Chinese telecommunications firms Huawei and ZTE Corp., a measure spurred by lawmakers’ concerns about Chinese espionage.

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