Asia/Africa update: September 25 2018


Donald Trump has been demanding that OPEC (i.e., Saudi Arabia) increase oil production to account for US sanctions against Iran and the resulting loss of Iranian production. But the Saudis and Russia–the world’s largest non-OPEC oil producer, have decided they’d rather not increase production, and, would you look at that, the price of oil has climbed back over $80/barrel. Trump singled out OPEC for criticism in his UN General Assembly speech on Tuesday, resurrecting one of his favorite laments about how the US protects Gulf oil producers militarily but those Gulf states don’t pay for the protection and then also won’t do anything to lower oil prices. High oil prices could undermine Trump’s sanctions against Iran and hurt him politically at home.



The United Nations mission in Afghanistan says it’s seen a spike in the number of civilian casualty incidents involving US airstrikes amid a corresponding ratcheting up of the US air campaign against ISIS and the Taliban. The UN’s data shows a 52 percent increase in civilian casualties caused by airstrikes in the first six months of 2018. The UN is also reporting that some 250,000 people in western Afghanistan have been displaced by the drought currently gripping that part of the country. The drought is now impacting 20 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and an estimated 45 percent of the population is now facing food shortages.


China’s program of concentrating its Uyghur population into camps in Xinjiang province has had side effects in Pakistan among men whose Uyghur wives have been interned or at least barred from leaving China to return home. This may explain why last week Pakistan became the first predominantly Muslim country to criticize China’s Uyghur policy despite Pakistan’s economic dependence on Beijing.


A State Department report released on Monday called last year’s Myanmar military assault on the Rohingya “well-planned and coordinated,” but conspicuously refused to call it a genocide. That plus the relatively quiet manner in which the report was made public ought to make you wonder if the Trump administration would’ve handled things the same way if the Rohingya were a Christian minority being persecuted by, say, Iran.


Rodrigo Duterte’s approval rating has plummeted to, uh, 75 percent in the latest Pulse Asia poll. That is a 13 point drop, mostly due to economic concerns, but somehow I think he’ll muddle through. And even if he doesn’t, Duterte can always continue to arrange the arrest of his political opponents, as he’s now done with Senator Antonio Trillanes IV. Last month Duterte revoked an amnesty Trillanes had received in 2011 over his involvement in a failed 2003 coup attempt, and Trillanes was finally taken into custody by police on Tuesday. Apparently Trillanes hadn’t filled out the right paperwork or something, and you can be sure that the decision to revoke his amnesty definitely wasn’t because he’s a frequent Duterte critic.


Donald Trump’s frequent threats to cut US foreign aid to countries that don’t grovel at his feet or whatever have not really materialized into significant foreign aid cuts except to the Palestinians. Why? Mostly because of China’s Belt and Road Initiative:

A key tension in the foreign aid review has been balancing two main priorities: reserving U.S. financial assistance for America’s “friends” while addressing China’s growing clout in the developing world, where it has doled out hundreds of billions of dollars in loans for construction projects involving ports, roads, railways, bridges and power grids. Beijing’s support for cash-strapped governments has been linked to favorable terms for natural-resources extraction or votes against Western-backed resolutions that are critical of China’s human rights practices, experts say.

Trump has been particularly interested in offering loans instead of grants, a senior U.S. official said. The president frequently asks advisers what the United States is getting in return for aid and has become convinced that U.S. money is going to pay off debts that other countries owe to the Chinese, they said.

The challenge, some officials argued, is that the United States risks losing influence to China if it works only with countries that are outwardly pro-American.

With Beijing having canceled military-to-military talks with the US over US sanctions, Defense Secretary James Mattis said on Monday that he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are looking for other ways to maintain some communication with their Chinese counterparts. They may have to start looking a little harder–Chinese officials on Tuesday rejected a US request to have the Marine amphibious assault vessel USS Wasp stop at Hong Kong next month. So apparently they’re still pretty mad.


And likely to get madder yet, seeing as how the State Department on Monday approved a $330 million sale of spare aircraft parts to Taiwan, including parts to maintain Taiwan’s F-16s. China, which reserves the right to reincorporate Taiwan by force, did not react positively to this news.

That said, writer Tanner Greer argues that China’s threats to attack Taiwan may be hollow, because the reality is that Taiwan, despite its obvious disadvantages in a confrontation with mainland China, might actually be able to win that war:

China has already ratcheted up economic and diplomatic pressure on the island since the 2016 election of Tsai Ing-wen and the independence-friendly Democratic Progressive Party. Saber-rattling around the Taiwan Strait has been common. But China might not be able to deliver on its repeated threats. Despite the vast discrepancy in size between the two countries, there’s a real possibility that Taiwan could fight off a Chinese attack—even without direct aid from the United States.

Two recent studies, one by Michael Beckley, a political scientist at Tufts University, and the other by Ian Easton, a fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, in his book The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia, provide us with a clearer picture of what a war between Taiwan and the mainland might look like. Grounded in statistics, training manuals, and planning documents from the PLA itself, and informed by simulations and studies conducted by both the U.S. Defense Department and the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense, this research presents a very different picture of a cross-strait conflict than that hawked by the party’s official announcements.

Chinese commanders fear they may be forced into armed contest with an enemy that is better trained, better motivated, and better prepared for the rigors of warfare than troops the PLA could throw against them. A cross-strait war looks far less like an inevitable victory for China than it does a staggeringly risky gamble.

Greer says that China’s battle plan would depend on a surprise initial missile barrage that cripples the Taiwanese air force and destroys much of its command-and-control capabilities. But it’s very unlikely that China could actually pull off a surprise missile barrage, and if Taiwan has time to shelter its leaders and its planes, it can wait for the Chinese invasion force to arrive and then attack with a combination of air power and guerrilla tactics used against an enemy army that’s completely unfamiliar with its environment.


I don’t want to belabor discussion of Trump’s UN speech, but it should be noted that he did praise Kim Jong-un while also saying that US sanctions on North Korea “will stay in place until denuclearization occurs.”

Mike Pompeo’s choice of envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, has won a lot of praise in Republican foreign policy circles. But his ability to make any headway with the North Koreans may be hampered by his boss’s boss’s habit of, well, talking out of his ass:

But the same experts and former officials who praise Biegun say his job may be doomed from the start—particularly after Trump prematurely declared victory at an earlier summit in Singapore with Kim, proclaiming on Twitter in June “[t]here is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”

“Negotiators for North Korea in this administration are in a very difficult position,” said Victor Cha, an Asia scholar at Georgetown University who was at one point expected to be Trump’s ambassador to South Korea. “They’re put in position of negotiating for things the president has already said they’ve gotten. That’s not a good position to be in.”



Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi announced on Monday evening that he’s ending his Nidaa Tounes party’s relationship with the Islamist/Muslim Brotherhood Ennahda party. He’s angry over Ennahda’s decision to back Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who is embroiled in a feud with Essebsi and his son and may be laying the groundwork to quit Nidaa Tounes altogether. Essebsi’s decision to cut ties with Ennahda won’t bring down the government but it probably will lead to more gridlock.


I’m already beyond tired of talking about UN General Assembly speeches, which are among the most meaningly big ticket events in all of world affairs, but outgoing (?) Congolese President Joseph Kabila’s speech on Tuesday seems worth noting. Specifically I mean the part wherein he promised to hold “peaceful and credible” elections by the end of the year. Kabila has already promised not to try to run again himself, which is a big positive step, but there are plenty of very well-justified concerns that he’s planning to rig the election in favor of his chosen successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary. Which would not be a very credible thing to do and probably wouldn’t wind up being very peaceful either.

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