The World Today for January 20, 2020

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Changing Partners

As American politicians disparage international free trade deals, Asian leaders are moving forward with them.

Late last year, 15 countries in the Asia-Pacific region – including China, Japan, Indonesia and South Korea – concluded negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a trade zone that will include 45 percent of the world’s population and a third of the planet’s gross domestic product, the Diplomat reported. The deal, likely to be signed this year, is expected to increase trade among member nations by more than $130 billion.

The partnership aims to hedge losses that Asian countries might experience amid calls for protectionism in the US and elsewhere, explained ASEAN Briefing, a publication of Dezan Shira & Associates, a consultancy.

India pulled out of the agreement out of fear of becoming a “dumping ground for cheap Chinese goods,” wrote the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank. But the Australian Strategic Policy Institute noted that Indian leaders might change their minds if and when the US and China reach a comprehensive trade pact that addresses similar concerns among Americans.

The RCEP agreement is one example of how the winds of change are altering the network of alliances that have governed East and Southeast Asia since the end of World War II. “2019 was a tough year for established alliances in Northeast Asia,” wrote Foreign Policy magazine. “Old relationships seemed ready to crumble, while new ones are only just being shaped.”

An important aspect of the trend is Japan’s rise as a driver of change rather than serving solely in a supporting role to American efforts in the region. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was a key player in ensuring that the 11 remaining Pacific Rim countries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which former US President Barack Obama negotiated but President Donald Trump scrapped, joined a revised version of the pact, argued Jeffrey Wilson, research director at the Perth USAsia Center, in the Japan Times. Abe is now pushing for Thailand, an important Japanese trading partner, to join the trans-pacific group too, Kyodo News added.

Abe has good reason to play powerbroker, reported the Straits Times, citing the state-owned China Daily and the Asia News Network. China wants to expand its markets. The US-China trade war is harming the Japanese economy, so officials in Tokyo want more options, too.

Meanwhile, Japanese-Korean relations are at their lowest point in years over disputes involving South Korean demands for compensating victims of forced labor for Japanese companies during World War II and Japan’s recent curbs on exports of high-tech materials to South Korea. Trade mends fences.

Has the US been sidelined? World Politics Review suggested that was possible.

One can’t blame jilted partners for finding other friends.



We’re Out

World leaders agreed on Sunday to work toward a more durable ceasefire between Libya’s warring factions in a conflict that has seen multiple countries supporting opposing groups, Bloomberg reported.

In a communique issued at the end of the Berlin conference, the leaders agreed not to interfere in Libya’s ongoing civil war and called for a UN arms embargo.

Sunday’s conference comes a few days after the failure of the Moscow summit in Russia, when eastern commander Khalifa Hifter walked out of a proposed truce with Libya’s internationally recognized government headed by Fayez Serraj.

The leaders did not meet face to face, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he expected officials from both factions to meet “in the next few days.”

If a truce is reached, the next phase would be to unite the country’s institutions and arrange for the first elections since 2014.

Libya has been in turmoil since the 2011 ouster of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, which brought years of instability and the rise of Islamic extremists, as well as divided the country between the Tripoli government and Hifter’s forces.


Another Exodus

Mexican security forces clashed with hundreds of Central American migrants at the border between Guatemala and Mexico on Saturday, preventing people from entering the country illegally as they try to reach the US, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Saturday’s wave was part of a migrant caravan of 1,500 people, mostly from Honduras, who are trying to find a better life in the United States.

The new caravan threatens to upend the relationship between Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and US President Donald Trump following similar incidents in 2018 and 2019, when thousands of migrants entered Mexico and headed for the US border.

Lopez Obrador has taken a tougher stance against the migrant caravans since Trump threatened to impose tariffs on Mexican imports.

Analysts argue, however, that the migrant tide will continue, especially from Honduras, where corruption and poverty have driven many people to seek a better life elsewhere.

Last week, the Honduran government and the Organization of American States (OAS) failed to reach an agreement to extend the mandate of the organization’s anti-corruption mission, a move that might intensify the exodus of migrants from Honduras.


More at Play

Jordanian lawmakers on Sunday unanimously voted on a draft bill to ban Israeli gas imports to the country, following weeks of protests against a $10 billion deal that came into effect earlier this month, Reuters reported.

The multibillion-dollar deal between Jordan’s state-owned utility and a US-Israeli consortium led by Texas-based Noble Energy would supply gas to Jordan’s power plants for 15 years.

The Jordanian government said the deal would achieve annual savings of at least $500 million and help reduce the country’s budget deficit, but many Jordanians oppose it.

Lawmakers worry that the country will become dependent on its neighbors for energy.

Meanwhile, protesters told Middle East Eye news agency that they refuse to light their country’s streets with gas “stolen from occupied Palestine.”

It remains unclear if Jordan’s government will back the bill.

Under a treaty signed in 1994 Israel and Jordan have maintained what’s commonly called a “cold peace.” However, relations between them have become tense since the gas deal was struck.


The Puzzle Piece

Nearly 40 years ago, a construction worker found a 4.25-pound gold bar during excavations for a new building in Mexico City.

Historians were unable to pinpoint the origin of the bar, but a recent study confirmed that it belonged to the Aztec treasure looted by Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes nearly 500 years ago, Agence France-Presse reported.

Using specialized X-rays, researchers at Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) confirmed that the precious artifact was lost while Cortes and his forces were fleeing from the Aztecs on June 30, 1520.

In an event known as “Noche Triste” – Spanish for “Sad Night” – the Aztecs, angry about the slaughter of their nobles and priests, chased the Spanish invaders from their capital, Tenochtitlan.

A year later, Cortes came back and laid siege to Tenochtitlan, which fell three months later. A new settlement was later built on the ruins of the capital, now known as Mexico City.

The study of the gold bar came a few months before the 500th anniversary of the “Sad Night” and the object is considered “a key piece in the puzzle of this historical event,” INAH said in a statement.

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