The World Today for January 22, 2018



In the Shadows

Two years ago, the Voice of America hailed former President Barack Obama’s visit to Laos as a signal the Southeast Asian country was stepping out of the shadow of its influential neighbors, China and Vietnam.

That was an overstatement. Laos is booming – averaging around 7 percent annual GDP growth since 2012, according to the Asian Development Bank. But with a population of around seven million people, the landlocked country must depend on its larger neighbors for trade and investment.

China, Thailand and Vietnam accounted for 85 percent of its $3.12 billion in exports and 90 percent of its $4.11 billion in imports in 2016, according to statistics portal GlobalEDGE.

That leaves Laos with some tough choices.

On one hand, its bilateral trade with China is roughly double its commerce with Vietnam, and Hanoi’s relatively small level of investment cannot rival China’s “economic invasion” – which amounted to an investment of more than $1 billion in 2015, VOA cited Nguyen Ngoc Truong, a former Vietnamese senior diplomat who runs a foreign policy think tank, as saying.

On the other, pundits argue that Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith’s vision for Laos may be more in line with Vietnam’s than China’s.

A former foreign minister, Thongloun has had greater exposure to the outside world than most Laotian leaders and belongs to neither of the “pro-China” and “pro-Vietnam” factions – a divide that for many marks the only discernible difference among the country’s political class, David Hutt opined for The Diplomat.

In 2010, Thongloun became the first senior official from Laos to visit the United States since the formation of the Communist state. And he’s widely believed to be the main force behind Vientiane’s attempt to form better relations with the West and the “international community.”

Meanwhile, a parallel development in Vietnam has made the differences clearer between Hanoi and Beijing, the Economist argued in December. While China supported Vietnam during its war with the US, “the days of warm ties are long gone.”

Laos’s two nominally communist neighbors are at odds over China’s claims to what Vietnam calls the East Sea, not the South China Sea. But some also argue that the two countries are drifting apart ideologically. The Vietnamese communist party’s general secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, has arguably pursued reforms, while Chinese President Xi Jinping has sought to solidify his own power – along with the party’s, says the Economist.

Laos’ Thongloun is a reformer, too, says Hutt, noting a serious crackdown on corruption that included the arrest of former finance minister, Phouphet Khamphounvong, along with four ministry officials, as well as efforts to stop drug trafficking and regulate the timber and mining industries.

But Thongloun must deliver prosperity to remain legitimate in the eyes of ordinary Laotians – who have grown increasingly frustrated by the rising inequality that has accompanied the country’s economic reforms.

And that prosperity, of course, can only come through trade and investment of the kind promised by China’s One Belt, One Road project, which also promises to boost Beijing’s power in Cambodia and Thailand.



Still Breathing

Europe breathed a collective sigh of relief Sunday, as Germany’s Social Democrat Party (SPD) voted to begin formal coalition talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc.

SPD delegates voted in favor of moving ahead by a margin of 362 to 279, with one abstention, Reuters reported. The parties had roughed in a preliminary coalition blueprint earlier this month, but there had been some signals of a revolt among the SPD ranks.

Now, the SPD will seek to extract additional concessions to ease concerns that acting as a junior partner to Merkel will further erode the party’s base.

“We will negotiate until the other side squeals,” SPD parliamentary leader Andrea Nahles said.

In its wish list, the SPD wants to scrap Germany’s dual public-private health insurance system in favor of a single citizen’s insurance, scale back temporary employment contracts and allow family reunification for asylum seekers suffering unusual hardship.


More and More Terror

Taliban gunmen stormed a hotel in Kabul, killing at least 18 people in an attack that singled out foreigners for execution.

The attackers searched the six-floor Intercontinental Hotel for foreigners, shouting “Where are the foreigners?” and “Don’t leave any of them alive,” the Independent reported.

At least 14 of the dead were believed to be foreign nationals, among them two Venezuelans and six Ukrainians, the paper said.

The gun battle ended yesterday morning after a 13-hour siege, as Afghan special forces killed the last of the six gunmen.

About 150 staff and guests managed to escape the building overnight.

The attack follows reports that the Taliban is moving closer toward peace talks, though spokesmen for the Taliban and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani have denied participating in recent meetings in Turkey and Pakistan, Reuters noted. At the same time, violence has intensified around the country, the New York Times reported.


Pass the Baton

At least six people were killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo Sunday, as fresh protests broke out against the continued rule of President Joseph Kabila.

Another 57 people were injured and 111 were arrested across the country, the New York Times reported.

Kabila’s second official term as president ended in December 2016, but the electoral commission delayed elections under the pretext of updating the voter rolls. But the impression he simply means to hold onto power indefinitely deepened when he failed to step down at the end of 2017 as agreed under a deal brokered by the Catholic Church.

Now, Protestant and Muslim leaders have joined their Catholic counterparts and some 100 civil society groups in speaking out against him – sparking renewed anger.

“I like athletics,” a prominent reverend said on national television. “I especially like a race – a relay race, where a person passes a baton to the second person, to the third person, to the fourth person.”


On the Move

Even in the modern age, scientists are still making surprising discoveries about human origins.

A baby girl who died some 11,500 years ago in what’s now central Alaska belonged to a previously unknown group of Native Americans called the “ancient Beringians,” the Guardian reported.

Called “sunrise child-girl” by the local population, the baby had genes from ancient north Eurasians native to Siberia and also indigenous Native Americans, archeologists found.

Evolutionary models show that Native Americans started to emerge as a distinct group some 35,000 years ago, probably in northeast Asia. Some 10,000 years later, the group intermingled with northern Eurasians in the region – their descendants went on to become the first Native Americans to settle the Americas by crossing the frozen Bering Strait more than 20,000 years ago.

In their study, published recently in the journal Nature, scientists posit that those natives who remained in the north, the ancient Beringians, became isolated from those who split off and moved south across the Americas.

While the findings support the theory of a single, mass migration of people from Asia to the Americas, how they moved so quickly to settle two huge continents remains a mystery, said Connie Mulligan, an anthropologist at the University of Florida.

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