The World Today for December 12, 2018

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Great Empires, Small Neighbors

Chinese leaders are learning from the great powers that came before them.

Sometimes the Athenians, Romans, Persians, Ottomans, British and Americans fought wars to advance their interests.

Sometimes, they just bought people off.

That’s China’s strategy in the Philippines. Chinese and Philippine officials have been clashing for years over the former’s artificial islands and other incursions into the South China Sea. Much ado has been made about the potential for a military confrontation in the region.

But after Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, late last month, it seems as if tensions might be cooling between the two countries.

Why? China offered to sign an agreement that gave the Philippines a cut of the oil and gas from the disputed territory, the South China Morning Post reported.

Even Philippines Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, an erstwhile critic of such deals with China, said Duterte had struck a “win-win formula,” said GMA News Online, a Philippines news outlet.

Xi agreed. “Our relations have now seen a rainbow after the rain,” he wrote in a Xinhua op-ed published in Philippine newspapers.

But, as the imperialists of old understood, when a big, powerful, rich country signs a deal with a smaller neighbor, the big, powerful, rich country is rarely giving much up.

That’s why Reuters and others have questioned whether Duterte, who in recent years has spurned his country’s traditional ally, the United States, is really getting value from Beijing.

“Hard questions are being asked in Manila whether Mr. Duterte’s rapprochement with China has actually helped the country,” reported the New York Times.

On the other hand, Duterte arguably has little choice but to strike a deal with China. Sooner or later, if Xi wants to control the South China Sea, he will. Or he’ll try too hard and spark a confrontation that might drag his country and the United States and its allies into World War III. Neither outcome is good from Duterte’s perspective.

In fact, his dancing with China might make American officials jealous, precipitating outreach that Duterte can accept with the added bonus of potentially eliciting a counteroffer from the Chinese, argued John Teo, a columnist in Malaysia’s New Straits Times.

Of course, that hypothetical plan could backfire. Writing in a South China Morning Post opinion piece, Lucio Blanco Pitlo III, a research fellow with the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, said the rapprochement between Xi and Duterte was no guarantee of peace.

Nothing in life is guaranteed, of course. Because that includes the survival of great empires and their smaller neighbors, everyone must try to do their best.



Christmas Under Siege

A gunman killed three people and wounded at least 11 others near a popular Christmas market in the French city of Strasbourg Tuesday.

The 29-year-old suspect was still at large early Wednesday, though he was reportedly wounded by soldiers guarding the market, CBS News reported.

Police said six of the injured are in serious condition, while six others suffered light injuries, the BBC reported.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said the suspect has a criminal record and that French prosecutors had opened a terrorism investigation. However, he didn’t offer details about a possible motive for the attacks, apart from confirming that the suspect’s home had been raided Tuesday morning in connection with an earlier investigation. Grenades were recovered in that raid, according to the BBC.

The European Parliament, which is based in Strasbourg, was put on lockdown after the incident.

The attack stirred memories of a terror plot to blow up the Christmas market in 2000, for which ten suspected Islamic militants were convicted and sentenced to prison in December 2004, CBS noted.


Oh, Yes We Did

Tehran on Tuesday confirmed that it tested a ballistic missile earlier this month, upping the ante in its confrontation with the US over the re-establishment of economic sanctions following Washington’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement.

When US President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal in May, one of the key reasons he cited was that it did not sufficiently restrict Iran’s development of ballistic missiles, Reuters noted.

“We will continue our missile tests and this recent action was an important test,” said Revolutionary Guards aerospace division head Amir Ali Hajizadeh, according to Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency.

Already, the UN Security Council met last week to discuss the test, which the US, Britain and France said flouted UN restrictions on Tehran’s military program. But therein lies the rub. Though it asks Iran to desist from such tests for eight years, the UN resolution that enshrined the nuclear deal is too vague to make it obligatory, some argue.


Twin Blows

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi no longer looks unassailable, following the surprise resignation of the head of the central bank and an unexpected sweep of state elections by the opposition Congress Party this week.

Central bank governor Urjit Patel tendered his resignation on Monday citing personal reasons, but his exit has been widely interpreted as a protest against government interference with the bank’s operations, CNN reported.

Following doubts about the way Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party government has redefined the way India calculates gross domestic product and criticism from Patel’s predecessor, Raghuram Rajan, the news has made investors edgy.

Adding to Modi’s troubles, the BJP lost to the Congress in three state elections in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, largely due to economic distress in the rural heartland, Al Jazeera reported.

Arguably the first real positive sign for the party since Modi’s landslide win in 2014, the state polls could boost the Congress’ chances of forming a united front with other opposition players ahead of the general elections next year.


No Bite

Scientists might have discovered a missing link between ancient whales that had teeth and modern baleen whales.

Their recent study of the fossil remains of the toothless Maiabalaena, or “mother whale,” suggests that species that evolved to become baleen whales first lost their teeth and only later developed baleen – the hairy plates in the upper jaw that filter tiny prey from ocean water.

In their study, the research team found that the jaw and throat structures of the 33-million-year-old Maiabalaena were consistent with sucking prey, rather than biting or chewing, according to Quartz.

The ancient mammal lived between the periods when toothed whales roamed the seas and when baleen whales emerged.

Marine biologists hypothesize that Maiabalaena’s ancestors had full sets of teeth. But as their prey got smaller, they slowly gave up on large choppers. Eventually, whales that relied on sucking fish and squid like a vacuum cleaner became more likely to survive.

Lead author Carlos Peredo added that baleen later formed as a way for whales to filter out excess salt water during meals.

The new study casts doubt on older theories that baleen evolved from teeth. It also illustrates how evolution favors whatever adaptations animals require to survive in a new environment – an ironic note, considering that modern whales might not be able to adapt fast enough to keep up with the changing climate.

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