The World Today for September 07, 2016


The Lasting Pivot

US President Barack Obama’s last big trip to Asia ended this week with his visit to Laos following the Group of 20 meeting in China. It’s message, the same over the past eight years, “we care,” was overshadowed by a brouhaha over manners.

Still, on Tuesday, the president said his signature policy toward the region, the so-called “pivot,” would not be a “passing fad,” Reuters reported.

The president referred to his decision to redirect America’s strategic focus toward the East, where China, India and other rising nations are arguably now more crucial to global stability than countries in Europe and elsewhere.

“I’ve worked to rebalance our foreign policy to make sure America is a key player in the region,” Obama said in Laos, where he, as the first American president to visit, expressed regrets for the US bombing of the country in the 1960s and 1970s.

The pivot has come at a cost, however.

China bridles at American incursions into its perceived zone of control, for instance. The US has flouted Chinese claims of sovereignty to artificial islands that Beijing has constructed in the South China Sea. Washington has also secured military relationships with India, Vietnam and other Asian countries, the Christian Science Monitor said.

The backlash against the US’s stepped-up attention to Asia has produced bizarre incidents, too.

The Chinese neglected to give Obama a red carpet reception when he landed for the G-20 summit over the weekend. At one point, a Chinese official yelled, “This is our country” at the American delegation that also included the American press pool which was covering the arrival.

Demagogic politicians have targeted the US for political gain, too.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte cursed Obama publicly on Monday, prompting Obama to cancel their meeting. Duterte later expressed his regret.

Foreign Policy declared that Obama’s pivot was “not the worst Asia legacy or the best in recent history.”

But the magazine noted that Obama appears to be leaving his successor a “dangerous incomplete” situation in North Korea. Entombed in backward authoritarianism and armed with nuclear weapons, the Hermit Kingdom is a wildcard that has potentially dangerous implications for stalwart US allies, South Korea, Japan, and for the US itself.

If North Korea is an inner threat, the larger global backlash against free trade is an outside danger.

Both American presidential candidates have made free trade their whipping boy.

Yet Obama continues to push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a free trade pact between the US and 11 nations from South and North America to the Indian Ocean, excluding China. If Congress doesn’t adopt the partnership, it would “call into question America’s leadership,” he said in Laos.

If the TPP passes in the lame duck session of Congress, Obama’s legacy of leadership in Asia isn’t necessarily secured. But he’ll certainly have given the next president something to work on.


Mixed Messages

Following local polls indicating that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s embrace of refugees has seriously undermined her popularity, Austrians, too, have made it clear they won’t abide a massive influx of migrants fleeing foreign wars. This time, though, the opposition came from the government itself.

Austria’s government has drawn up a draft law that would bar most migrants from seeking asylum after the total number of applicants crosses the threshold of 37,500 people, the Washington Post reported. So far this year, about 29,000 migrants have applied for asylum in Austria.

Though the bill will not be put to a parliamentary vote until after it undergoes a four-week review period, officials said that the text of the proposed law was finalized on Tuesday, and most expect Austria’s center-left government will have no trouble securing its passage.

Even as Austria, Hungary – with an upcoming referendum on refugees – and German states show their opposition to newcomers, the mayor of Paris is throwing open its doors by unveiling plans for a migrant camp in the north part of the city to provide short-term housing and care for migrants.

The announcement came hours after a fire broke out at an uninhabited camp west of Paris following anti-migrant protests there, and French officials vowed to close “quickly” the refugee camp at Calais in the north.

Poking the Bear

The lifting of US sanctions against Iran in January has done nothing to change the view from the deck of American warships in the Persian Gulf – unless it’s to make sailors more jittery.

Seven Iranian vessels harassed and nearly collided with a US Navy coastal patrol ship on Sunday, marking the fourth such incident in less than a month, Reuters reported. Instead of a reduction since the elimination of sanctions, the nautical harassment has nearly doubled to 31 such interactions this year.

In the latest incident, the seven vessels were part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN). Separate from the regular Iranian Navy, the IRGCN does not operate as part of the Iranian army. Instead, it is closely controlled by Ayatollah Khamenei.

The intended message is that no matter what Iran’s elected authorities do and no matter how they try to negotiate with the Western world, the clerical establishment is more powerful, according to energy expert and historian Ellen R. Wald.

Not Adding Up

By the official tally, sitting President Ali Bongo Ondimba squeaked through to win re-election in Gabon last week, thanks to a suspiciously stellar performance in his home province. But on Tuesday the European Union observation mission in the Central African nation said it had detected an anomaly in the results, according to the Wall Street Journal.

That should hardly come as a surprise. As the Economist noted earlier, an incredible 99.93 percent of eligible voters in Bongo’s home province ostensibly showed up at polling stations, with an unlikely 95 percent of them rubber-stamping his re-election. If those numbers were true, it would mean only 47 people in the province did not turn up to vote, and virtually everybody else backed Bongo over opposition contender Jean Ping.

Meanwhile, in the country’s other provinces, voter turnout hovered around 48 percent, according to the EU.

The disputed results have sparked fears about growing instability in the oil-rich country.

Already, post-election violence has killed between 50 and 100 people, according to Ping, who was placed under house arrest immediately following the polls but has since been released. Gabonese authorities place the death toll at three to six people.

Largely viewed as an autocrat, Bongo was elected in 2009 following the death of his father, Omar Bongo, who had ruled Gabon for four decades. However, low oil prices have threatened the continuation of the family dynasty by propelling the country into an economic crisis.


Of Affluence and the Panda

The contrasting fates of two of the world’s most iconic species show how big an impact that affluence and stability have on conservation.

Thanks to an increase in available habitat made possible through conservation efforts in China, the population of giant pandas soared 17 percent between 2004 and 2014, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The jump was big enough that the group actually removed the giant panda from the endangered species list – though it is still classified as “vulnerable,” USA Today reported.

Getting rich has been glorious for the panda. For other creatures such as the African rhino, China’s rising wealth is to blame for a lucrative and deadly market in trafficked wildlife products.

And for the eastern gorilla, the chaos of civil wars on its home range has been disastrous.

The numbers of the eastern gorilla, which lives in mountainous forests of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, have plunged a whopping 70 percent over the past 20 years – prompting IUCN to downgrade its status from “endangered” to “critically endangered” this year.

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