The World Today for August 11, 2016


Poking the Dragon

U.S. President Barack Obama’s efforts to prevent conflict in the Far East seem to be ramping up tensions and encouraging greater belligerence from Beijing. Washington calls it defending its allies, or simply being prepared. But the initial results suggest it’s just poking the dragon.

In recent weeks, Washington has backed Manila’s play to resolve by international arbitration the Philippines’ dispute with Beijing over its claim of ownership over the Spratly Islands and the surrounding waters of the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, almost concurrently, Obama has unveiled plans for a new missile shield – known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or Thaad – for South Korea in response to repeated ballistic missile tests and other provocations from North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

From America’s perspective, it’s hard to see either move as unreasonable. But just as Russian President Vladimir Putin sees NATO as encroaching into Russia’s sphere of influence, rather than preventing its expansion, China also sees U.S. efforts to act as official referee in the Pacific as encroaching upon and threatening its rising power.

That means efforts to make the region safer may actually be making it more dangerous – as, arguably, can also be said about the post-Cold War expansion of NATO.

The parallel has not been lost on Beijing.

Fearing a “mini-NATO trilateral alliance” comprising Japan, South Korea and the U.S., for instance, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has described the Thaad missile shield as “an out and out strategic move” designed to contain China, according to Bloomberg.

The result may be that Beijing re-aligns itself with Kim amid deteriorating relations with the South, undermining other measures to influence the North Korean leader through economic sanctions and effectively cementing in place the trilateral alliance it fears. Chinese opposition this week already prevented the United Nations Security Council from condemning the launch of a missile by North Korea that landed near Japan on Aug. 3 because China wanted the statement to condemn Thaad as well, Reuters reported.

In other signs of its displeasure, Youku, China’s biggest streaming site, canceled a meet-and-greet event for fans of South Korean stars Kim Woo-Bin and Bae Suzy to promote the South Korean TV drama “Uncontrollably Fond,” amid talk of a ban on such serials and even a total boycott of products from the South, according to the Associated Press.

“The Thaad deployment is a symbol of the new Cold War,” Bloomberg quoted a Chinese expert on Korea as saying. “The power dynamic in Northeast Asia has fundamentally shifted, towards a profound deterioration.”

The legal effort to resolve the South China Sea dispute under the arbitration provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has also arguably proved to be counterproductive – though one might also say it has strengthened the loyalty of America’s allies.

Beijing simply dismissed the judgment in favor of the Philippines as revealing the bias of the UN tribunal, which declared large areas of the sea to be neutral international waters or the exclusive economic zones of other countries. And the international affront increased pressure on the regime of President Xi Jinping to save face – the cultural importance of which should not be underestimated.

As a result, China went from accusing the U.S. of militarizing the dispute by sending aircraft and warships in and out of the contested region to speeding the construction of hangars that could be used for its own fighter jets on its holdings on the Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs in the Spratly islands, according to a separate Reuters report.

And it has stepped up air patrols and announced joint military exercises with Russia in the disputed region following the tribunal’s decision.

None of that means a Crimea-type conflict with China is on the horizon, of course.

On Monday, the USS Benfold arrived in Qingdao, the home port of China’s northern fleet, to conduct America’s own joint military exercises with the disgruntled Asian giant, while on the same day former Philippine President Fidel Ramos flew to Hong Kong at the behest of President Rodrigo Duterte to try to patch things up with Beijing.

But there’s no getting around the conclusion that American pushback has made the situation more fraught.


Fact Check

The United Nations has called for Ethiopia to let international observers into areas of the country that saw dozens of fatalities last weekend during clashes between protesters and security forces.

At least 49 people were killed when Ethiopian security forces disrupted anti-government demonstrations in the two regions of Oromia, in central-western Ethiopia, and Amhara, in the north.

The UN has said reports emerging from the two regions were “extremely alarming” and called on international observers to be allowed access to the regions to establish exactly what happened there.

Demonstrations have been taking place in Oromia, which surrounds the capital of Addis Ababa, since November 2015, when the government announced plans to extend Addis Ababa’s boundaries. Those plans incited fears among the Oromo people that their farmland would be seized.

While the Ethiopian government quickly dropped that expansion project, protests have since spread to other parts of Ethiopia, including Addis Ababa – a rare occurrence in the capital of a country ruled by a government considered to be one of Africa’s most oppressive.

A Long-Awaited Date

Ecuador announced early Thursday that it would set a date for Swedish prosecutors to question Julian Assange inside the country’s London embassy, where Assange has been holed up since 2012.

The announcement marks a potential breakthrough in the ongoing stalemate over the WikiLeaks founder.

Assange has been wanted by Swedish police for questioning over two women’s accusations of sexual assault that originate from a visit Assange made to Sweden in 2010. The WikiLeaks founder denies all the allegations being made against him.

Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry said that a date for an interview inside the embassy’s confines would be set “in the coming weeks.”

Assange fears that he will be sent to the U.S. for prosecution over WikiLeaks’ publication of classified government documents if he is extradited to Sweden. He also faces arrest by British police if he leaves the embassy building and has not been outside for years barring occasional trips to the embassy balcony.

Of Oil and Discord

Libyan militants are being urged by Western powers to implement a cease-fire near a key oil terminal amid concerns that damage to the terminal would impede efforts to stabilize the country’s war-torn economy.

The West’s call is evidence of rising concern in the U.S. and Europe that militants are refusing to fall in line with Libya’s UN-backed unity government, writes the Wall Street Journal.

Political turmoil in Libya has been a point of concern for the West since Islamic State (IS) took advantage of the country’s tumult to establish a new stronghold in the coastal city of Sirte – where US-backed militias recaptured a key IS base on Wednesday.

The potential for conflict with Libyan militants has been escalating in recent weeks. Libya’s Petroleum Facilities Guard has been preparing to resume exports from the Zueitina oil terminal in northeastern Libya along with three other facilities following a merger between the National Oil Co. and a rival oil company.

But militants from eastern Libya have been threatening to attack oil tankers authorized by the UN-backed unity government.


Overdue Eruption?

Italy has been home to some of the most famous volcanic explosions in history thanks to the disastrous eruptions of volcanoes like Etna and Vesuvius, but could a new chain of volcanoes soon join their ranks?

A new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters suggests that a volcano under Rome’s suburbs – and in close proximity to the Pope’s summer abode Castel Gandolfo – might be about to enter a new eruptions phase.

Colli Albani – a volcanic chain of hills located about 30 kilometers outside Rome – had previously been dismissed by scientists as extinct.

But after Colli Albani began showing indicators of a future eruption, like earthquakes and carbon dioxide puffs, scientists dug deeper and found that 11 eruptions had occurred over the past 600,000 years – meaning the volcano was merely dormant rather than extinct.

Now, geologists are debating whether the volcano poses any near-term danger. Evidence found suggests that the Colli Albani is currently refilling its magma chambers, but time is on the Eternal City’s side. It takes thousands of years for this process to lead to an eruption, according to scientists who took part in the study.

CORRECTION: Yesterday’s item “Fun & Games in Brasilia” misspelled the name of Brazil’s interim president. The correct spelling is Michel Temer.






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