World update: May 25 2018



If the possibility of an Indian-Chinese war worries and/or excites you, then you may want to pay attention to recent Chinese mining activity in areas around the highly disputed border between the two nations. The area is believed to contain tens of billions of dollars worth of precious metals, so there’s definitely an economic component to China’s efforts, but mining in these places also asserts Chinese sovereignty over the area, much in the way that Chinese infrastructure projects in the South China Sea assert Beijing’s sovereignty there.


Before he canceled his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump noted that Kim’s whole attitude about the meeting seemed to change following a trip he took to Beijing earlier this month. While that’s purely speculative, it suggests that Trump’s decision to pretty much cut China out of the loop entirely in his dealings with North Korea wasn’t the smartest thing he’s ever done. For all his faults, Xi Jinping seems genuinely to have worked with Trump to ratchet up economic pressure on Pyongyang over the past year-plus. China certainly has no love for North Korea, despite Western insistence to the contrary. But Xi was in an excellent position to act either as spoiler or enabler, and Trump opted instead to ignore him altogether. It very much remains to be seen whether China will be as willing to help Trump pressure Kim now as it was before this summit situation got started.


On the other hand, maybe the summit will go ahead as scheduled after all. That was Trump’s unbelievably bizarre message on Friday:

“We’ll see what happens,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “It could even be the 12th,” he said. “We’re talking to them now. They very much want to do it. We’d like to do it. We’ll see what happens.”


Mr. Trump indicated that he was pleased with a conciliatory statement released by North Korea after his decision on Thursday to scrap the summit meeting, and he brushed off concerns raised privately by his staff and publicly by his allies and adversaries alike that Mr. Kim was playing him.


“Everybody plays games,” he told a reporter. “You know that.”

Trump is giving the rest of the world little choice but to unite to find a way to contain the United States. It is untenable to have the most powerful nation on earth run by a guy who lurches from impulsive decision to impulsive decision with nary a single evident thought in his head. Kim, by contrast, now looks like a seasoned, stable leader by comparison. That’s an astonishing achievement for a US president.



As Libya tries to pull itself out of civil war and put itself back together again, its Amazigh minority wants its rights protected by law–among other things, it wants its Tamazight language made official in any new Libyan constitution:


Fighting between the Allied Democratic Forces and DRC soldiers in North Kivu province that began on Thursday has left at least 14 ADF fighters and 5 Congolese soldiers dead so far. The soldiers have been chasing this band of ADF fighters since last weekend, when they attacked a village near the city of Beni and killed 11 civilians.



Vladimir Putin held a session with other world leaders at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on Friday, and apparently it turned into a safe space for everybody to vent about Donald Trump:

The president of France spoke of an “erroneous decision.” Japan’s Prime Minister lamented disruptions to trade. The head of the International Monetary Fund said recent foreign policy positions were “not the right way to go.”


They were not criticizing President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, whom the United States has tried to isolate on the world stage.


Instead, Mr. Putin sat, nodding approvingly, on a stage beside these heads of state and other senior officials at a business forum that veered into what sounded at times like a group-therapy session for world leaders slighted by President Trump.

Putin, meanwhile, told the forum’s audience that he has no plans to attempt any shenanigans to extend his time as Russian president past the end of his term in 2024. He can, of course, just make himself prime minister again like he did in 2008, but by 2024 Putin is going to be over 70 so at some point succession is going to become an issue.


Estonian banks have apparently been doing quite a bit of money laundering:

More than $13 billion (11 billion euros) were laundered through banks in the small Baltic state of Estonia from 2012-2016, with at least 7.3 billion euros in assets through non-resident bank accounts, police said on Friday.


The European Union member country has been rocked by revelations of money laundering from Russia, Moldova and Azerbaijan via non-resident bank accounts that have forced lenders in Estonia and neighboring Latvia to shut down.


Estonia’s police Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) said that besides more than $6 billion laundered via Estonian banks in schemes discovered by national financial inspection agencies, a further unreported 7.3 billion euros was channelled via Estonian banks through the sale of Russian stocks and bonds.


Moody’s says it is reviewing Italy’s bond rating for a possible downgrade as the country’s new Five Star-League coalition works to form its first cabinet. Both parties are planning to take anti-austerity measures (benefit increases for Five Star, tax cuts for the League) that aren’t sitting well with The Market, and the League is pushing hard for economist Paolo Savona to become economy minister. Savona is particularly objectionable to The Market because he’s a major critic of the euro. Both Five Star and the League have mostly dropped their opposition to the euro, but Savona is a proponent of developing a “plan B” for getting Italy out of the currency with as little economic pain as possible–just in case, of course.


Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy could be facing a serious political challenge soon. On Friday the Socialist Party made a no-confidence motion in parliament, and the Citizens party said it may do the same if Rajoy refuses to call an early election. Several members of Rajoy’s Conservative Party were convicted this week on campaign finance law violations in the 1990s and 2000s, and Rajoy himself is under fire after the judge in the case deemed his testimony not “plausible.”



Thousands of people protested in Buenos Aires on Friday against the Argentine government’s decision to enter into talks with the International Monetary Fund over new financing. Many Argentine people blame the IMF for exacerbating the country’s economic struggles in the early 2000s, and hey, they’re probably right about that.


US Senator Bob Corker visited Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Friday, despite this week’s diplomatic escalation between Caracas and Washington following Maduro’s reelection on Sunday. Corker isn’t going rogue or anything–he was apparently in Venezuela to try to negotiate the release of US citizen Joshua Holt, who has been held in Venezuela on a weapons charge without trial since 2016.


We may finally have an explanation for the mysterious condition afflicting US diplomats in Cuba and, more recently, in China:

Kevin Fu, a researcher at the University of Michigan, together with Wenyuan Xu, a professor at Zhejiang University, in Hangzhou, China, and her Ph.D. student Chen Yan, published a report, titled “On Cuba, Diplomats, Ultrasound, and Intermodulation Distortion,” giving a more plausible explanation.


Through experiments, this team showed that ultrasonic signals from eavesdropping devices can “combine to produce audible and potentially dangerous tones similar to the undulating, high-pitched chirping that the diplomats described,” as Michigan News put it.


“We’ve demonstrated a scenario in which the harm might have been unintentional, a byproduct of a poorly engineered ultrasonic transmitter that was meant to be covert,” Fu told Michigan News. “A malfunctioning device that was supposed to inaudibly steal information or eavesdrop on conversation with ultrasonic transmission seems more plausible than a sonic weapon.”

Fu also suggests that the sound could be the result of a transmitter interacting badly with a device meant to jam such transmissions.


Two suspects are being sought by Canadian authorities in connection with a bombing at an Indian restaurant in Mississauga on Thursday night. Nobody was killed in the blast but 15 people were injured, a few critically. It’s not clear what their motive might have been, but terrorism and/or some sort of hate crime can’t be ruled out.


Finally, Robin Wright attempts to unpack the damage that Donald Trump has done to US diplomacy:

In the run-up to Memorial Day, the commemoration of the fallen from America’s wars, Donald Trump put the world on notice that he is prepared to fight another one. He issued the warning two hours after cancelling his summit with North Korea, and in consultation with the Pentagon. “I’ve spoken to General Mattis and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and our military—which is by far the most powerful anywhere in the world, and has been greatly enhanced recently, as you all know—is ready if necessary,” he said, in comments from the Roosevelt Room at the White House. “Hopefully, positive things will be taking place with respect to the future of North Korea, but if they don’t we are more ready than we have ever been before.”


Trump still wants a summit with Kim Jong Un, the White House insisted on Thursday. As Trump headed to his helicopter on Friday morning, he told reporters that discussions between Washington and Pyongyang had resumed. He even held out hope for the June 12th date in Singapore. But his words were the latest unsettling prospect in a tumultuous time of all-or-nothing diplomacy that intrinsically increases the dangers of conflict. In the fifteen months of Trump’s Presidency, the United State has witnessed a stunning undoing of long-standing norms—of the U.S.-led world order, core alliances, trade pacts, principles of nonproliferation, patterns of globalization, world institutions, and, most of all, U.S. influence. A lot of it began in 2003, with the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But it has accelerated with breathtaking speed since Trump took office.


And, in virtually every case, there is increasingly no alternative to replace the institutions, ideas, accords, and relationships that Trump is undoing.

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