The World Today for February 14, 2018



No Return Policy

It’s no secret that China has sought to expand its influence in recent decades over the African continent by way of large-scale infrastructural and business investments.

Recent figures by cross-border investment monitor fDi Markets place Chinese foreign direct investment in Africa at over $25 billion in 2017 alone – a number that dwarfs US investment in Africa many times over for that same year.

But the shiny new buildings, railways and government buildings in Africa that have come to symbolize the strength of the Sino-African alliance come with risks not mentioned on the original price tag.

The French daily Le Monde recently reported that the African Union’s new Chinese-funded headquarters in Addis Ababa had one feature not laid out in the original blueprint: a backdoor into the African Union’s computer network that allowed China to spy on the institution for five years.

The BBC reported that the Chinese ambassador to the AU quickly rebuffed the claim. But that didn’t stop the African Union from debugging the institution and rebuilding cybersecurity programs from the ground up.

Such a violation of trust would have surely put a kink in most bilateral relationships – think of the scandal that ensued after it was suggested that the NSA had wiretapped phone calls involving German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But just days after the Le Monde report was published, Ethiopia and China announced plans to strengthen their partnership, according to Chinese state news.

Ethiopia, one of the world’s poorest countries, has greatly benefited from Chinese largesse – Beijing has built entire neighborhoods in Addis Ababa, a $475-million light-rail system and the $200-million AU complex, the Los Angeles Times reported.

That’s not to mention other projects across Sudan, Nigeria and Kenya – where China recently finished another $4-billion railway.

Such investments are a strategic move for China, which once sought to win the hearts and minds of Africans through the construction of passion projects like stadiums, but now is seeking to cement a strategic geopolitical and economic position on a continent largely ignored by the West, the Financial Times reported.

It’s working: By 2014, trade between China and Africa had risen 20-fold to $220 billion compared to where it stood in 2000, and a 2016 Afrobarometer survey of 36 African nations found that 63 percent of Africans thought China’s influence was “somewhat” or “very positive.”

Influence isn’t just a one-way street, either, writes Quartz. More and more Chinese are setting up shop permanently on the African continent, while one can find African entrepreneurs running factories and other companies in China.

China sees Africa as a testing ground for its strategy of exporting authoritarian development models by way of large-scale investments – the exact opposite of Western efforts to spread liberal democratic capitalism, the Economist reported.

But Beijing still runs the risk of everything being for naught if its billions invested don’t produce economic gains, the Economist posits – and such expensive buys often don’t come with a return policy.



Falling on the Sword

Former European Parliament President Martin Schulz resigned as the head of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) in a bid to keep factional rivalries from impeding the pending coalition deal with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives.

Schulz announced he was giving up his post Tuesday, amid concerns that a leadership tussle was damaging efforts to convince the party’s rank and file to approve the coalition agreement in a postal ballot, Deutsche Welle reported. The results of that vote are expected March 2.

While the SPD extracted significant concessions in exchange for forming another “grand coalition,” many party members feel that past alliances with the conservatives have damaged the SPD’s ability to attract voters.

Under Schulz’s leadership, the SPD earned its lowest postwar vote share ever in last year’s general election. And last week he was forced to abandon a bid to serve as Merkel’s foreign minister, which he’d pursued after pledging that he would not take a post in the coalition government.

The SPD leadership nominated former Labor Minister Andrea Nahles to replace him.


Opening the Purse Strings

After suggesting it might rely entirely on regional allies to finance Iraq’s post-war reconstruction effort, the US said Tuesday it would extend Baghdad a $3 billion line of credit.

Rather than direct financial aid, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Export-Import Bank of the United States (EXIM) would sign a $3 billion memorandum of understanding “that will set a stage for future cooperation” with Iraq’s finance ministry, Reuters reported.

Washington is still hoping regional allies, including Saudi Arabia in particular, will bear the brunt of the financial burden of repairing the damage done in the three-year war against Islamic State. Iraq has pegged the cost of rebuilding at more than $88 billion.

At this week’s investors’ conference in Kuwait the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is seeking assistance in some 157 projects, following a pledge to slash red tape and tackle corruption.

Among the challenges: Seeking support from both Iran and Saudi Arabia – the region’s most bitter rivals.


Collateral Damage

At least four Russian nationals and perhaps dozens more were killed in fighting between the US-led coalition and pro-government forces in eastern Syria, Syrian and Russian officials say.

About 100 Syrian soldiers were killed in the fighting on Feb. 7 and 8, the New York Times quoted a Syrian military officer as saying. But the Russian casualty numbers are dribbling out from Russian news sources and social media.

According to the Times, Russian and Syrian forces attacked a coalition position near Al Tabiyeh, as part of an ongoing struggle for control of the strategic, oil-rich area of Deir al-Zour. US-backed Kurdish forces then called in an airstrike that accounted for most of the fatalities.

The paper quoted a US military spokesman as saying that there was no chance of direct conflict between US and Russian forces at any time during the skirmish.

For its part, the Kremlin has downplayed Russia’s role in the incident and insisted that any Russian casualties were mercenaries, rather than members of the Russian military.


Light in the Jungle

Explorers hoping to stumble upon new civilizations now have a modern tool to add to their arsenal.

Using a high-tech aerial laser-mapping technique, archaeologists from the Mayan Heritage and Nature Foundation discovered previously undetected Mayan structures in Guatemala hidden for centuries beneath thick jungle foliage, the Associated Press reported.

Known as Lidar, an acronym for light detection and ranging, the technique bounces laser light off the ground to reveal contours on the jungle floor.

The mapping across an 810-square-mile area revealed about 60,000 structures, including plazas and pyramids, as well as houses and defense structures, that had been overlooked.

The scale of the discovery lends new insights into how ancient Mayan society functioned and its size – new estimates based on the mapping technique suggest that as many as 10 million people could have once lived in Guatemala’s Mayan Lowlands.

“As soon as we saw this, we all felt a little sheepish, because these were things that we had been walking over all the time,” said Marcello A. Canuto, a professor of anthropology at Tulane University.

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