Asia/Africa update: January 15 2019

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban issued a statement on Tuesday warning that it will withdraw from peace talks with the US unless Washington commits to the talks with “sincere intentions.” I’m going to be honest here and say I have no idea what they’re talking about and in fact it’s beginning to seem like the Taliban are trying to derail peace talks on purpose. That would explain this statement, and why they’ve suddenly insisted on meeting only in Doha even though important regional actors like the Saudis and Emiratis won’t participate there, and why they’re still carrying out major terrorist attacks. If they are trying to wreck the talks, it could be because they’re winning the war and want to keep fighting, or it could reflect some internal dynamics whereby Taliban hardliners are ascendent over moderates, but that’s pure speculation.

CHINA

The Chinese government has sentenced a Canadian citizen named Robert Schellenberg to death on drug smuggling charges, in a case that may well be tied to Canada’s arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou last month. The Canadian government has accused Beijing of being arbitrary in its sentencing, and the case raises troubling questions about whether China is engaging in hostage diplomacy to try to get Meng released. Schellenberg was convicted and given a lesser sentence in November, until his case was reopened. This is not normal in Chinese criminal cases, which is part of the reason it’s raised red flags involving the Meng situation.

Writer Tao Peng argues that Beijing is coming down hard on Canada for detaining Meng, rather than the US for requesting her detention, as part of a strategy designed to convince US allies that it pays not to support Washington:

This was a public declaration that Beijing is set for retaliation against U.S. allies such as Canada and will adopt specific measures to implement the strategy of removing America’s friendly partners. In that sense, China’s measures against Canada are an example of the Chinese idiom “killing a chicken to scare the monkeys.” The goal is to deter other countries from angering China at the United States’ behest.

China’s strategy of forcing U.S. friendly forces to choose to stand on the Chinese side has achieved some results already. For example, since 2012, China has succeeded in forcing some Southeast Asian countries to stand on the Chinese side in the South China Sea disputes through its sharp strength and other means. Then, China impounded Singapore’s armored vehicles in Hong Kong in November 2016, which convinced Singapore to no longer echo U.S. views over the South China Sea. Even Japan has shifted a bit to China’s side. In October 2018, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe went to Beijing and said that Japan would no longer confront China. Since then, he has been more cautious in using the term “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy” as coined by the Trump administration.

In fact, Beijing believes that China has already settled the western Pacific in this sense. Now, China’s strategy of forcing U.S. allies to choose to stand on its own side is set to expand to the  eastern Pacific. The editorial of the newspaper World Journal firmly believes that “achieving this goal or doing it to a considerable extent is very likely to be done.”

AFRICA

SUDAN

Protests against Omar al-Bashir continued on Tuesday, with hundreds turning out to demonstrate in the working class neighborhood of Kalakla, in Khartoum. Security forces broke up the protests with tear gas.

LIBYA

Khalifa Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army has undertaken an operation to “liberate” the southern part of the country and, uh, all its oil fields. Southern Libya has remained mostly outside the control of either of the country’s two would-be governments, and many of the oil fields in that region are controlled by local militias. ISIS is also active in the south, having been driven out of the populated areas of the country, as well as militant groups from neighboring countries (Chad, Sudan, etc.). It’s the possibility that Haftar might seize control of most of Libya’s oil, ahead of planned elections later this year, that will raise the most eyebrows both in Tripoli and internationally.

IVORY COAST

The International Criminal Court on Tuesday acquitted former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo of crimes against humanity for actions taken following the country’s 2010 presidential election. Gbagbo’s refusal to concede defeat after that election led to a bloody four month civil war that ended with Gbagbo’s surrender. It’s unclear what this means for the Ivory Coast, though if Gbagbo returns there he will immediately become a leading figure in the opposition to President Alassane Ouattara. What is clear is that there are now more questions than ever about the ICC and whether it can actually fulfill its mandate. The court failed to bring charges against any of Ouattara’s people for their role in the civil war, and its failure to successfully prosecute Gbagbo means everybody involved in that conflict will get off scot free.

NIGERIA

The Nigerian military has reportedly retaken the northeastern town of Rann from ISIS-West Africa, a day after losing it to the militants.

KENYA

A group of al-Shabab terrorists attacked a hotel and office complex in Nairobi on Tuesday, killing at least 15 people. That death toll is very preliminary and may rise, particularly seeing as how it’s not clear the situation has been totally brought under control. The Kenyan government insisted by Tuesday evening that the attackers had been neutralized, but scattered gunfire could reportedly still be heard around the area well into early Wednesday morning and there are still workers reportedly trapped in the complex.

GABON

A wheelchair-bound President Ali Bongo appeared on Gabonese television on Tuesday in an apparent effort to ease concerns about his health following his recovery from a stroke in October. The footage reportedly showed Bongo unable to move his right arm and with a mostly expressionless face, so it’s unlikely people are going to be wowed by it.

ZIMBABWE

At least three people, including one police officer, were killed amid nationwide protests on Monday against rising prices, prompting the Zimbabwean military to come out in full force on Tuesday to quell demonstrations. The Washington Post has some details on the cause of the protest, and specifically President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s weekend decision to raise gas prices to an astronomical level:

On Sunday, just before taking a private jet on an official trip to Russia (all of the state-owned airline’s planes are grounded), Mnangagwa announced a 140 percent increase in fuel prices, raising the cost to $12.53 a gallon and making Zimbabwe by far the most expensive place to gas up in the world. For many Zimbabweans, it was the last straw. They took to the streets, but in another echo of the Mugabe era, so did security forces, looters and unidentifiable armed men.

According to the advocacy group Doctors for Human Rights, five people have died during the protests and nearly 40 have been treated for gunshot wounds in Chitungwiza, one of the capital Harare’s sprawling suburbs, and Kadoma, a town southwest of Harare. Security Minister Owen Ncube told state-owned media Monday night that more than 200 people had been arrested nationwide. Internet connections were also shut down in some areas.

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