Asia/Africa update: February 5 2019

ASIA

KAZAKHSTAN

Nursultan Nazarbayev on Tuesday denied reports that he’s planning to call a snap election. Nazarbayev had set off speculation by inquiring as to the constitutional length of his presidential term. Apparently, though, he wasn’t doing so in order to stand for reelection. Instead, Nazarbayev wanted to know what powers he would retain after the end of his term, which raises speculation that he’s considering retirement, not reelection. Parliament voted Nazarbayev the title “Leader of the Nation” last May, which grants him considerable authority even after leaving the presidency. For a couple of years now the 78 year old has been quietly laying the groundwork for a managed succession before he dies and potentially throws things into chaos.

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban attacked an Afghan military base in Kunduz province early on Tuesday, killing at least 26 people before they were driven back. The Taliban appears to be focusing again on Kunduz, which it briefly captured in both 2015 and 2016. It’s trying to maximize its territorial gains ahead of further peace talks with the United States.

Elsewhere, two Afghan journalists were killed on Tuesday when gunmen broke into their radio station in the city of Taloqan, in Takhar province. It’s unclear who carried out the attack.

THAILAND

Prayut Chan-o-cha, leader of the military junta that’s been ruling Thailand since 2014, is still considering a run for civilian office when the country finally holds an election in March. In an effort to distance himself from his military image, he’s been filmed visiting with farmers and villagers and has even cut an album (he’s apparently a good singer). If he runs, or really even if he doesn’t, he’s highly likely to wind up as prime minister in the new civilian government. The military will entirely control the new Thai Senate, which will have equal say in choosing the PM along with the lower House of Representatives.

CHINA

The Carnegie-Tsinghua Center’s Matt Ferchen explains the history of China’s relationship with Venezuela and why Beijing is somewhat stuck backing Nicolás Maduro now:

By the early 2000s, China was already one of the world’s top oil importers and was looking to expand and diversify its supply sources. After Hugo Chávez became president in 1999, Venezuela increasingly declared its intentions to diversify its own oil trade relationships away from overdependence on the United States and specifically toward partners in Asia such as China and India. Venezuela was South America’s top oil producer, and industry analysts by 2011 came to believe Venezuela had the world’s largest oil reserves, ahead of even Saudi Arabia.

China and Venezuela increasingly pursued a state-to-state, loans-for-oil structure for their partnership. On the Chinese side, the key institution was the China Development Bank (CDB), which lent more than $55 billion to Venezuela from 2007 to 2016. On the Venezuelan side, the key partners were Chávez and the state-owned oil firm, PDVSA, which agreed to service the loans through guaranteed oil sales to China.

Chávez died of cancer in 2013, and the price of oil crashed the following year, but there were already signs that all was not well in the China-Venezuela relationship. For example, annual flows of Venezuelan oil exports to China rarely came close to the amounts promised by politicians on both sides. China’s national oil companies were also frustrated in their efforts to gain preferential access to upstream investment opportunities in Venezuela’s oil-rich Orinoco Belt.

NORTH KOREA

Donald Trump is delivering his State of the Union address this evening and, I have to say, I just don’t care. I’m sorry. But according to Politico Trump will announce (has announced, I guess, by the time you read this) that he’ll meet with Kim Jong-un again on February 27-28 in Vietnam. The venue was already pretty clear, but the date still hadn’t been finalized.

US North Korea envoy Stephen Biegun is heading to Pyongyang on Wednesday to try to bring some substance to the summit and get the denuclearization agenda on some kind of forward track. Biegun is getting plaudits for a speech he gave last week in which he situated denuclearization within a larger plan to remake the US-North Korea relationship and suggested that there are things the US would be willing to do to reward North Korea for taking steps along the way–to date the US has pursued an all-or-nothing approach in which North Korea can only expect to benefit once denuclearization has been achieved.

AFRICA

SUDAN

Sudanese police again used tear gas to break up anti-government protesters on Tuesday in Khartoum. The demonstrators gathered outside the country’s Supreme Court building to demand the release of protesters who have been arrested by Sudanese authorities and involved a large group of lawyers who responded to a call from the Sudanese Professionals Association for its members (including teachers, doctors, etc.) to join the protest movement.

BURKINA FASO

The Burkinabe military carried out a major counterterrorism operation near the Mali border on Tuesday and reportedly killed at least 146 insurgents in the process. The operation was in response to an attack by jihadist on the village of Kain on Monday, in which 14 civilians were killed.

SOUTH SUDAN

United Nations South Sudan envoy David Shearer told reporters on Tuesday that fighting in South Sudan “has diminished greatly” since the government and rebels signed a peace deal in September. The government and rebels continue to meet to negotiate the details of reconciliation and displaced civilians have begun returning home. He did caution that there’s still some ongoing fighting in the southern part of the country and the peace process could still collapse, but overall it seems things are on a positive track.

CHAD

Alex Thurston has more details on Sunday’s French airstrike on a column of Chadian rebels that had crossed into the country from southern Libya:

RFI gives a few more details on the French airstrikes, namely (a) the convoy had been frustrating Chadian forces’ attempts to destroy it for two days before the strikes, (b) the strikes occurred at least 400km from the Chadian border with Libya,* and (c) the French forces were part of Operation Barkhane. That operation is widely understood as a Sahelian counterterrorism force, but last August’s transfer of a Barkhane base from N’Djamena to Wour (map) was, perhaps, a signal that Barkhane was making itself available to Chad as an anti-rebel force. There is a much longer history of French support to Chadian President Idriss Deby, including amid rebellions that have threatened his power in the past, so these dynamics extend well beyond just Barkhane.

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