World update: September 24 2018

It’s United Nations General Assembly Week, a magical time when heads of state, heads of government, and foreign ministers from all over the world gather in New York City to try to bullshit one another for a change instead of trying to bullshit the rest of us. I tend not to get too invested in “OMG did you hear what Andrej said about Aleksandar before lunch today? SO AWKWARD!”-type “news,” so this week often winds up being a welcome slow period around here. At least it is today, as I bring you this early/shortened update so that I can attend to some other things.



Indian officials say that five suspected Kashmiri rebels and one Indian soldier were killed on Monday in fighting near the Kashmiri line of control. The alleged militants reportedly crossed into Indian territory from the Pakistani side of the line before they engaged with Indian forces.


Somewhat surprisingly, defeated Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen has actually conceded his defeat in Sunday’s election and it looks like he’s prepared to go without putting up a fight. Yameen’s authoritarianism had led many, me included, to believe that even if he lost the vote it was no sure thing that he’d voluntarily step aside. And to be fair, he still hasn’t actually done that, he’s just made it appear that he will. Perhaps the overwhelming turnout (over 89 percent) and challenger Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s landslide margin of victory (he won with over 58 percent of the vote) has convinced Yameen that he’d have no real support for any attempt to stick around.

The victory by Solih, who will take office in November, is a pretty big shakeup for South Asia and indeed for all of Asia. The Maldives is a relatively small nation but it’s strategically positioned in the Indian Ocean and has been for some time the object of a tug of war between India and China. Yameen was clearly in the Chinese camp but Solih is seen as more pro-India. The new president will be challenged to hold together a coalition of supporters who all hated Yameen but also kind of hate each other as well, while trying to manage the Maldivian economy in light of the significant Belt and Road-related debt taken on by Yameen.


As we settle in for what looks like a long trade war with China, some analysts are cautioning that what appears to be short-term US success is unlikely to lead to a long-term US victory absent some policy changes from the Trump administration:

Even if the United States “wins” the trade war in the short term with China making some concessions that allow Trump to declare victory, the United States is likely to lose over the longer term as China works to reduce its dependence on the U.S. market and upgrade its technological capacity.

But the United States could still change course. The Trump administration has insisted upon waging this war solo. As in most wars, a more effective strategy might be to rally our allies — in this case, all those other countries that have legitimate complaints about Chinese economic policies. With a united front, China will find it harder to compensate for exclusion from the U.S. market by turning to others.

Finding countries that are souring on Chinese hegemony wouldn’t be difficult for the administration (OK, for any other administration). The Diplomat’s Kerry Brown notes a growing nervousness about what appears to be Chinese overreach:

The calculation is simple. As China comes toward it centenary goal in 2021 and marks achievement of modernity with Chinese characteristics, Beijing can now have things on its own terms. The outside world now needs it – for investment, markets, stability, action on climate change, and, most remarkably because of Trump, some kind of continuation of the free trade consensus set up in the previous decades and now being ripped apart by Washington.

But to the more attentive, a new counternarrative is also starting to emerge, which stands against this tale of an ever more powerful China that can name its terms and act without restraint or pretense. As more and more people start to know far more about the China model, and to see it manifested in their daily lives, doubts start to grow. The sharp treatment of Taiwan, the actions in Xinjiang, the incredible, pervasive growth of the surveillance state in China and its annexation of almost every aspect of life without any institutional or legal restraint – all these register in some form and shape a little resistance.


Donald Trump told reporters on Monday that he expects to have another summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un soon. So at least we can look forward to that.



Alex Thurston examines an assassination that took place in northern Mali earlier this month and has since been claimed by Jamaʿat Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimin (Nusrat al-Islam or JNIM), Mali’s branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb:

On 9 September, a commander of the Operational Coordination Mechanism (French acronym MOC) was assassinated in Timbuktu, northern Mali, killed in his car. The commander’s name has been transliterated various ways – Salim Ould M’Begui, Salim Ould Nbekhi, Salim Baghi, and Saloum Ould Becki. From the Arabic spellings that have been given (see here), I would transliterate it Salim Imbighi.

In any case, he was a member of the Coordination of Movements of Azawad (CMA), a coalition of northern Malian armed movements that all played some part in the rebellion of 2012 against the Malian state. The CMA has three major components – the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), the Arab Movement of Azawad (French acronym MAA), and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (French acronym MNLA). M’Begui belonged to the MAA and was further, as we will see below, a member of the Awlad Idris/Oulad Idriss, an Arab tribe in northern Mali.


Well, so much for peace deals and ending South Sudan’s civil war. Government and rebel forces reportedly battled on Monday in Liech province. There’s been no casualty count as yet. Both government and rebel officials blamed the other side for starting the fighting, of course, but the more important point is that it’s been less than two weeks since President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar signed their most recent peace agreement and already it’s falling apart.


Kenyan forces reportedly killed ten al-Shabab fighters in a battle in Lamu county on Monday.



The European Union is suing the Polish government at the European Court of Justice, seeking to suspend a new Polish law that forced about a third of the country’s Supreme Court judges to resign and brought the judicial selection process more closely under government control. The EU is arguing that the Polish measure violates the bloc’s rules regarding judicial independence. Poland has said it believes the suit is baseless but will comply with the ECJ’s ruling.


Barring some sort of unimaginable miracle, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven is going to be removed from office in a no-confidence vote on Tuesday. Löfven’s position has become untenable since the country’s inconclusive election earlier this month, but the bigger problem for Sweden is that nobody else’s position seems any more tenable than his. Löfven will remain as the head of an interim government until a new one can be formed, but that could take a while.

Probably, though not definitely, on his way out the door (Wikimedia Commons | Poltikerveckan Almedalen)

The simplest path Sweden has to a government is for the center-right Alliance bloc to form a minority government with support from the radically far right Sweden Democrats. But Alliance leaders have said they would not negotiate with the Sweden Democrats and any attempt to do so could scare more centrist members of the bloc into abandoning it and siding with Löfven’s center-left coalition. Parliament has already elected a speaker from the Alliance, which suggests that bloc is in better shape than Löfven’s at least at the moment.


The Daily Telegraph (which is paywalled) is reporting that a majority of Theresa May’s cabinet has, in the wake of her humiliation in Salzburg last week, come around to the position that a Canada-style free trade agreement with the EU would be the best course of action post-Brexit. This is a major step for the Tories, who previously had been waiting for the EU to fall to its knees and beg the UK to take whatever it wanted, but it’s insufficient as a Brexit strategy because it still leaves the gaping problem of Northern Ireland unsolved.

The EU’s Canada option would force the UK to institute customs checks between Britain and Northern Ireland, effectively leaving Northern Ireland in the EU in many practical respects. That idea has consistently been rejected both by May’s government and by the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest party in Northern Ireland and, lest we forget, the party whose support is keeping May’s minority government afloat. The DUP would seem to have a very powerful veto over anything May does and would undoubtedly use it in this case. The alternatives to Britain-Northern Ireland customs checks is either a return to a hard Irish border, which could be genuinely disastrous, or the adoption of May’s magic technological solution to the problem, which probably doesn’t exist outside of her head.



Finally, you’ll be pleased to know that the CIA is preparing to stop waterboarding listening in while Emirati agents waterboard Yemeni tribesmen and devote its full attention to preparing for World War III:

The Central Intelligence Agency is rededicating itself to the kinds of missions that defined the agency for most of its seven-decade existence, focusing on foreign nations that challenge or threaten the United States, its director said here on Monday.

In her first public remarks since being confirmed in May, Gina Haspel laid out her plan to return the agency to the work that was at the heart of its espionage mission before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, which transformed the CIA into a paramilitary organization that conducted lethal operations against terrorists around the word.

Haspel’s remarks amounted to public affirmation of a transformation that has been underway for the past few years as the CIA attempts to shift from a consuming focus on terrorism.


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