Asia/Australia/Africa update (with Bonus Blob Rant): July 6 2017

As I said on Sunday, this week was going to be a little abbreviated around here, and in that vein today’s updates will be our last until Sunday evening. Thanks for reading!


To recap: North Korea has a functioning intercontinental ballistic missile, one that would potentially allow Pyongyang to strike the United States (Alaska). The president of the United States is warning of “some pretty severe” consequences for North Korea’s ICBM test on Tuesday, though naturally he won’t say what those are because, let’s be honest, he doesn’t know. China is urging “calm,” which, let’s be honest, carries a little whiff of a threat as well.

So is it time to crack each other’s heads open and feast on the goo inside? No. For one thing, this was one test of a brand new missile. There’s no way it’s actually ready to be used, and it could still be years before it is ready to be used in combat. For another, the North Koreans haven’t shown they can fit a nuke onto this missile, or any other ICBM, as yet. They probably will be able to do that at some point, and their missile technology will improve to the point where they can reliably hit the United States. But we’re not there yet. By the time we get there it’s even possible, though I wouldn’t bet my kid’s tuition money on it, that the dream of missile defense will actually be a real thing. Alaskans, who are the folks now in the line of theoretical fire, don’t seem too worried. Even Defense Secretary James Mattis, not exactly a pacifist, says he doesn’t think this missile test moves us any closer to war. Yet.

Suppose some of those assumptions are wrong, though. Suppose North Korea suddenly demonstrates tomorrow that it can fit a miniaturized nuclear warhead atop a missile that could hit anywhere in the continental United States. What does that mean? Well obviously a world without a North Korean nuclear arsenal is preferable to a world with one. But as unpredictable, dangerous, and often ridiculous as the North Korean regime is, it’s not suicidal. It’s not stockpiling a dozen nuclear weapons for a surprise first strike against the United States. It’s stockpiling them, and building up its missile capabilities, to deter the United States from attacking North Korea. And that deterrent could be used to prevent the US from coming to the aid of South Korea or Japan should Pyongyang decide to attack either. But even in that scenario, if the US were to aid its allies in a purely defensive war against North Korea, the North Koreans would still need to make the affirmative choice to launch nukes at the United States and be utterly annihilated as a result. Would they make that choice? Maybe, but I suspect not. These weapons are to be used in the very specific case of an offensive American war to topple the Kim regime.

So, you know, let’s not have one of those. And to be fair, nobody of any importance is suggesting that we should right now. But this is the point at which the DC foreign policy establishment (the Blob, if you prefer) freaks out, when another country takes steps to reduce America’s God-given right to do war on them with impunity. Here’s the thing, though–maybe that’s not a right America should have in the first place. Why would the US go to war against North Korea absent North Korean provocation? Undoubtedly, North Korea is a malign actor in the world. The Kim regime brutally mistreats its own citizens. It sponsors and engages in terrorism. It kidnaps and imprisons foreigners, sometimes unto death. It tries to destabilize South Korea. It sells weapons to people we’d prefer didn’t have those weapons. Would it sell or give a nuclear device to terrorists? It’s possible, but if it were found out that would invite the same American nuclear response as if it had fired nukes at the US itself. So I have my doubts.

It’s worth noting at this point that many of these malign actions might be things we could convince North Korea to stop doing if we, uh, tried talking to them. But we refuse to do that. Some of them are actually things we don’t really give a shit about–if human rights abuses and/or state support for terrorism were really principles that drove American foreign policy, our entire Middle Eastern alliance structure would look vastly different than it does. These are unconvincing as potential justifications for an attack on North Korea.

Which brings us to the real reason the US might go to war to overthrow the Kim regime, which is a lot more primal than some concerns over North Korea’s bad actions. It’s because the Kims, like Saddam Hussein in the 1990s or the Castros in Cuba and Iran’s clerical regime today, have the gall to remain in power despite America’s strong preference that they stop doing that. Every day Kim Jong-un sits on his…well, I don’t know what he sits on, his throne? chair? stool? child’s desk chair? defies America’s will, and it’s been that way since 1953. Our national pride demands his removal. And to be fair, a world without the Kim regime would probably be a better world than this one. But so, frankly, would a world in which the United States stops thinking it can dictate its will to everybody else on the planet at the point of a gun.



Shelling from Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh killed two civilians in Azerbaijan earlier this week, raising ever-present fears that the conflict there might heat up again.


Malik Naveed, one of the leaders of the Baloch National Party, was murdered by gunmen in Quetta on Thursday. There’s been no claim of responsibility, but there are any number of bad actors operating in Balochistan province, from Baloch separatists to Pakistani extremists to the Afghan Taliban to ISIS.


Aung San Suu Kyi said at a news conference on Thursday that she’s going to do everything she can to prevent more mob violence targeting Rohingya ha ha ha, sorry, no, but at least she did say that her government is considering amending a controversial telecommunications law that has been broadly used to justify censoring the media and imprisoning journalists. That’s something.


Perhaps realizing that the idea of a 92 year old prime minister is a little ridiculous, former Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad now seems to be throwing his support behind fellow opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, a comparatively spry 69 years old, as the man who should be the country’s next leader. OK, fair enough. But what makes this relationship so interesting is that Ibrahim used to be Mohamad’s deputy prime minister, from 1993 until 1998, when both were members of the ruling United Malays National Organization. Then they had a falling out over, and Mohamad had Ibrahim arrested and imprisoned on charges of engaging in homosexual activity (sodomy), which is still against the law in Malaysia. He was eventually released and later became the leader of Malaysia’s political opposition…at which point UMNO leaders had him arrested and accused of sodomy again. He was finally convicted and sentenced to five years in prison in 2014.

Now Mahathir says that Ibrahim has been the victim of a “political vendetta,” which is certainly true, but it’s a vendetta that Mahathir began back in the late 1990s. Now that he’s also part of the Malaysian political opposition, Mahathir seems to be admitting a mistake in not allowing Ibrahim to succeed him back then, and says he wants the government to pardon Ibrahim so that the latter can serve as prime minister if the opposition wins the next parliamentary election (probably sometime next year). That’s quite a journey.


So Rodrigo Duterte said a thing:

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte just threatened to eat ISIS militants.

“I will eat your liver if you want me to,” he ranted. “Give me salt and vinegar and I will eat it in front of you.”

According to the South China Morning Post, on Wednesday night Duterte directed the threat at Abu Sayyaf, an ISIS-affiliated group with a stronghold in the southern island of Mindanao, after the group beheaded two Vietnamese sailors. The sailors’ bodies were recovered on the island on Wednesday.

Duterte was on the island when that news broke, and he proceeded to give an impassioned speech before local officials. “I eat everything. I am not picky. I eat even what cannot be swallowed,” he said.

I can’t believe people think he’s unhinged.

While he might eat their livers, one thing Duterte says he would not do is negotiate with terrorists. In response to reports that he sought talks with the Maute Group right after fighting began in Marawi, Duterte denied it, though he did allow that he might “talk to revolutionaries who are imbued with principle.” Who knows what that means or how Duterte might parse “terrorists” from “revolutionaries.”


Mongolia’s presidential runoff vote is tomorrow, with opposition Democratic Party leader Khaltmaa Battulga facing Miyeegombo Enkhbold, the candidate of the incumbent ruling Mongolian People’s Party. Battulga won the first round of voting last month but failed to cross the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff. Mongolian voters appear so dissatisfied with both candidates that there’s a real effort to get voters to submit blank ballots–if neither candidate can get to 50 percent this time around, the election has to be run all over again, presumably with new candidates.


Chinese activist and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo is reportedly very close to death from liver cancer. Liu was imprisoned by the Chinese government in 2009 over his political activism, and Beijing, ever compassionate, has steadfastly refused to release him so that he might go abroad to seek better medical care, or at least so that he might not die in prison.


Japan and the European Union have agreed to the outlines of a free trade deal as well as a “strategic partnership” that will involve collaboration on things like climate change. If you’re thinking this deal says something about Donald Trump, you may be right–negotiations between the EU and Japan have been going on since 2012, but they seemed fairly well stalled out until Trump’s election. Brexit may have also made the EU more interested in getting a deal done.


Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Thursday was forced to try to walk back remarks from his deputy, Barnaby Joyce, to the effect that Australia might go along with any US plan to impose sanctions on China over its support for North Korea. There is no such plan, but obviously eager not to piss off Beijing, Turnbull said that his government was committed to “work cooperatively through the United Nations” to pressure Pyongyang and has no intention of unilaterally imposing any sanctions on China.



The Nigerien army reportedly killed 14 unarmed farmers near the border with Nigeria on Thursday after mistaking them for Boko Haram fighters. The farmers were apparently spotted near the village of Abadam, which is considered a restricted zone because of Boko Haram activity.


Al-Shabab may be losing territory and may have been pushed out of most of the population centers it once controlled, but American University’s Tricia Bacon argues that it’s in no danger of disappearing. In fact, it’s adapted to its new circumstances and is gaining support as an alternative government among peoples and parts of Somalia where the actual government still has limited reach:

But it’s not the violence that’s attracting followers. My recent field research in Kenya and Somalia, the two East African countries where al-Shabab is most active, suggests that al-Shabab is thriving because it’s still offering a comparatively attractive alternative to the Somali government. It capitalizes on grievances, keeps areas secure and settles disputes, with relatively little corruption. That’s especially attractive in undeveloped or remote areas that the fledgling government has neglected.

As a result, al-Shabab is becoming a shadow government, positioning itself as Somalia’s champion of disenfranchised and marginalized clans.


Kinshasa is asking for help from its international donors:

Democratic Republic of Congo’s government has formally requested financial support from international donors as it confronts a worsening economic crisis, a letter seen by Reuters on Thursday showed.

Africa’s top copper producer has been hard hit by low commodity prices in recent years. It has only enough foreign currency reserves to cover about three weeks of imports and its franc currency CDF= has lost half its value in the past year.

The letter was dated July 4 and addressed to the U.N. Secretary General as well as in-country representatives of the African Union, the European Union, three regional African organisations and other foreign ambassadors.

In it, Prime Minister Bruno Tshibala’s chief of staff, Michel Nsomue, wrote that the government “needs the support of the international community and thus of its traditional partners”.

“In light of the current context, (the government) awaits in particular from these (partners) balance of payments support and budget support to allow it to confront the current economic difficulties provoked by the collapse of prices of raw materials on the world market,” Nsomue wrote.

The DRC would probably have more luck drumming up financial support if it were no longer led by Joseph Kabila, who is now in year six of his five year presidential term and whose corruption, human rights abuses, and inability to stabilize the country have scared off many potential investors and supporters. But Kabila naturally shows no interest in going anywhere.


The International Criminal Court has decided not to refer South Africa to the United Nations over its decision not to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir while Bashir was attending the 2015 African Union summit in South Africa. Bashir is wanted by the ICC for war crimes in Darfur, but as the ICC really only has as much jurisdiction as countries allow it to have, this hasn’t really affected his ability to travel around the world. South Africa argued that all heads of state attending the summit were given diplomatic immunity, and that seems to have convinced the ICC. Of course, the court may also have wanted to avoid an embarrassing scenario whereby it referred South Africa to the UN and then nothing happened, which is probably how things would have gone.

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