The World Today for May 03, 2017


Strength in Numbers

In a year defined by the rising tide of populism, one major world power seems to be bucking the trend: Japan.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has managed to balance a growing sense of nationalism at home with pragmatism abroad, providing a sense of stability to citizens after years of political insecurity, Quartz reported.

“His government has been so stable, and pretty much every other advanced democracy looks so unstable,” said Tobias Harris, a fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Washington, D.C. “After years of a revolving-door premiership, people are just happy there’s a stable pair of hands.”

Now in his second tenure as prime minister, Abe – once thought to harbor right-wing, populist leanings himself due to his long-held desire to alter Japan’s pacifist constitution – has learned that Japan needs international partnerships to prop up its economy.

In short, Japan is looking for strength in numbers.

Tokyo announced recently that it would begin reviving talks on the Trans Pacific Partnership next month to take advantage of booming economies in the South Pacific.

Many, including Abe himself, thought the colossal free-trade deal would be dead-on-arrival after the United States pulled out of the agreement earlier this year. But he now hopes greater access to foreign markets will electrify Japan’s plateauing economy, Foreign Policy reported.

There’s a group-think mentality to Japan’s defense strategy as well.

Abe’s push to expand the nation’s military is still unpopular with his people.

To avoid a backlash, Abe is hoping to quell rising fears over a nuclear standoff with North Korea by hosting a set of trilateral talks with Washington and Seoul in Tokyo next week.

President Donald Trump has been in constant contact with Abe about maintaining a united front against Pyongyang’s recent provocations. Japan’s willingness to pursue such a controlled global approach on many fronts presents a historic opportunity for cooperation, the Washington Post opined.

But Abe will have to seek a clever balance if he’s to keep afloat.

For too long, Japan has closed itself off to immigration. That’s kept populism at bay, but at the cost of jeopardizing economic prosperity in the future, said the New York Times.

Meanwhile, claims that Abe’s wife supported a nationalist, racist educational group risks engulfing the prime minister in controversy.

While Abe continues to enjoy high approval ratings, there’s always a risk that political opinion could pivot given the right set of circumstances – one only has to look to South Korea or France for proof of that.


A Lula and a Doozy

Brazilian prosecutors on Tuesday lodged fresh corruption charges against the one-time chief of staff of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Jose Dirceu, the once wildly popular president’s chief of staff, has already been sentenced to long jail terms on other corruption charges. But he was released from jail pending an appeal. In the fresh charges, prosecutors accuse him of taking 2.4 million reals ($755,880) in bribes from two engineering firms – UTC Engenharia SA and Engevix Engenharia SA, Reuters reported.

Dirceu has been sentenced to 32 years behind bars in other cases stemming from the longstanding investigation of corruption at the state-owned oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA, or Petrobras.

Dirceu’s release pending appeal and the fresh charges come amid widespread disillusionment with the political system in Brazil – where former President Dilma Rousseff was impeached and ousted for fudging government accounts last year and a third of the cabinet members of current President Michel Temer are under investigation for graft. Lula, too, was indicted in December.

Simmering On

Away from daily headlines, the conflict in the Central African Republic has claimed the lives of dozens of civilians over the past few months, as rival factions fight for control of a key central province.

At least 45 people have been killed and 11,000 displaced in fighting and reprisal killings over the past three months, as the ethnic Fulani Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC) and the Popular Front for the Renaissance in the Central African Republic (FPRC) battle for control of the central province of Ouaka, according to Human Rights Watch.

“Armed groups are targeting civilians for revenge killings in the central part of the country,” Deutsche Welle quoted a Human Rights Watch researcher as saying.

The violence in the Central African Republic began in 2013, when a mainly Muslim rebel coalition called the Seleka toppled President Francois Bozize. Subsequent looting and killing prompted Christians to form self-defense militias known as anti-Balaka.

Despite airstrikes and the presence of UN peacekeepers the fight has increased in voracity since 2016, said Human Rights Watch researcher Lewis Mudge.

Trade, Birds and Protests

A rocky underwater outcrop could sink China’s ambitious plans to blast open the Mekong River to facilitate the passage of deep-drawing cargo ships.

Part of China’s “One Belt, One Road” project to build a modern-day Silk Road through Asia to Europe, the dynamiting of the Pi Long rapids and other sections of the Mekong between Thailand and Laos would destroy fish breeding grounds, disrupt migrating birds and cause increased water flow that will erode riverside farmland, Thai protesters say.

“This will be the death of the Mekong,” Reuters quoted the chairman of a local group campaigning against the project as saying. “You’ll never be able to revive it.”

It’s not clear how much impact such protests can have on the project, for which China is spending nearly $1 trillion overall. But they highlight growing concerns among locals even in Southeast Asia, where the local governments have by and large welcomed Beijing with open arms.


No Bones About It

Scientists often find it difficult to obtain genetic material on ancient humans, as their remains are usually scarce.

But it turns out the absence of bones doesn’t necessarily mean there’s an absence of ancient DNA. The genetic material of extinct humans can be found in sediment in caves, say researchers.

Scientists excavating at seven dig sites in Belgium, Croatia, France, Russia and Spain collected sediment samples dating to between 14,000 and 550,000 years ago, wrote the BBC.

The results – recently published in the journal Science – show that DNA can survive at sites occupied by ancient hominins even if their remains are long gone.

These findings could help scientists determine the identity of prehistoric inhabitants at archaeological sites where only artifacts have been found before, said researchers.

“We can now tell which species of [hominin] occupied a cave and on which particular stratigraphic level, even when no bone or skeletal remains are present,” Antonio Rosas, a scientist at Spain’s Natural Science Museum in Madrid, told the BBC. “This work represents an enormous scientific breakthrough.”

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