The World Today for August 03, 2022

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NEED TO KNOW

The Bidding War

CHINA

American and Chinese ships and planes are more frequently encountering each other in the western Pacific Ocean, according to General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff during a recent visit to Indonesia. “The message is the Chinese military, in the air and at sea, have become significantly more and noticeably more aggressive in this particular region,” Milley told the Associated Press.

A potential clash between the US and China in the Pacific usually focuses on Taiwan, as Defense News wrote. But the thousands of islands spread across the Pacific have especially become an arena for this great power conflict.

As the Brookings Institute explained, islands like Kiribati, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu have been strategically important in the modern era. In World War II, for example, they became the sites of important battles between American and Japanese fleets that needed islands to establish bases for fuel, supplies and repairs.

Today, the countries in these archipelagos, meanwhile, are in dire need of economic assistance, especially after the pandemic and inflation have hurt growth. As a result, the US and China have stepped up their efforts to engage and forge alliances with their leaders.

For example, the US recently opened new embassies in Kiribati and Tonga in what the Guardian said was a bid to push back against China’s expanding influence in the Pacific. Boosting aid to the region was part of that decision, incidentally. That effort fit perfectly with the Partners in the Blue Pacific coalition that the US has launched with allies in the region.

China is pursuing a similar strategy, recently launching a diplomatic blitz to counter US efforts, Bloomberg reported. In early July, for example, Foreign Minister Wang Yi solidified a $5.2 billion rail project in Thailand. He also spoke about a new “golden age” of Sino-Filipino relations under the newly elected president of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. And in Myanmar, he met with military leaders who had ousted the country’s civilian government in a coup last year.

Such efforts have made China extremely influential in the Pacific, the New York Times concluded in an analysis.

In this environment, winning and losing are not so clear. Earlier this year, for example, news broke that China’s leaders were negotiating a secret agreement with the Solomon Islands that would allow Chinese warships to visit the country. Australia and the US dispatched officials to try to scuttle the deal, but the Solomon Islands signed it. However, as the Rand Corporation argued in a blog post, the sneakiness of China’s approach tarnished its image somewhat among locals.

China might not be the big winner here. But the US, as the incumbent hegemon in the region for more than 50 years, clearly has the most to lose.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Target Acquired

AFGHANISTAN

A US drone strike killed al Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahri in Afghanistan’s capital this week, an attack that raised skepticism among Afghans that one of the world’s most-wanted terrorists was actually living in Kabul at the time of his death, NBC News reported Tuesday.

US officials said that two Hellfire missiles struck the terrorist leader on a balcony of a Taliban-supported safe house in downtown Kabul on Sunday evening.

According to the US intelligence community, al-Zawahri and his family had been living in the safe house for months after moving there from Pakistan. There were no reports of other casualties.

The strike marks the first US counterterrorism operation in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over the country almost a year ago in the wake of the withdrawal of international troops.

Al-Zawahri was considered one of the key masterminds behind the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and second-in-command to former al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. He took control of the jihadist group in 2011, following a US operation that killed bin Laden in Pakistan.

Following Sunday’s drone strike, Taliban authorities acknowledged there was an attack but gave no details of the casualties, according to Agence France-Presse.

Meanwhile, world leaders and US allies welcomed news of al-Zawahri’s death, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling it “a step toward a safer world,” Al Jazeera noted.

Some Afghans, however, expressed skepticism that the terrorist leader was residing in Afghanistan and called on the US to provide proof of death. Hardliners, meanwhile, were angry the Taliban couldn’t protect the al-Qaida leader.

Even so, analysts said the killing could deepen the tensions between the US and the Taliban government. The armed group signed an agreement with the US in 2020 pledging to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups.

Al-Zawahri’s presence was a violation of the agreement, and analysts fear the killing will push the Taliban toward openly embracing terror groups.

Nudge, Nudge

TAIWAN

United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed in Taiwan on Tuesday and became the highest-ranking American official to visit the island in 25 years – despite threats from China and fears of a potential skirmish between Washington and Beijing in the Asia-Pacific region, the Associated Press reported.

Pelosi’s visit is part of a tour of Asia, a trip that has raised tensions between the US and China ahead of her visit to the island. Beijing – which considers Taiwan as part of its territory – had warned of “resolute and strong measures” if Pelosi went ahead with the trip.

Tuesday, China’s Defense Ministry said it will conduct a series of targeted military operations to “safeguard national sovereignty,” drills Taiwan said amounted to a blockade of the island. Also, China moved to halt some exports to the country.

Shortly after her arrival, some Chinese officials criticized the visit as a severe violation of the “One China principle,” Beijing’s claim to be the sole government of both mainland China and Taiwan. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has vowed to “reunify” Taiwan by force if necessary.

In 1949, Taiwan and China split after the Communists won a civil war on the mainland. Even though the US acknowledges Beijing as China’s government, it maintains informal relations and defense ties with Taiwan.

Beijing, however, views US contact with Taiwan as encouragement to make the island’s decades-long de facto independence permanent, a measure that American officials say they oppose. Still, Pelosi said after she landed in Taiwan that her Congressional delegation underscores the US commitment to Taiwan’s “vibrant democracy.”

Meanwhile, the visit has sparked worries in the region over a potential clash between US and Chinese warships as they both vie for influence in the region.

Leaders in Singapore and Japan underscored the importance of stable US-China ties, while Philippine officials urged the two superpowers to be “responsible actors” in the region.

Wolves and Henhouses

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO

The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo is considering ejecting a UN peacekeeping force after weeks of violence between demonstrators and soldiers has left 33 people dead, Reuters reported.

Twenty-nine civilians and four peacekeepers were killed during demonstrations across east Congo last week, officials said. Protesters were demanding that peacekeepers leave the country for failing to protect them against militia groups that have left east Congo devastated after decades of violence. The demonstrations included firebombs and other attacks against UN facilities, and peacekeepers opening fire on civilians.

Meanwhile, over the weekend, peacekeepers shot to death two civilians at a Congo-Uganda border post. It is unclear what led to the killings, local and UN officials said, promising an investigation and prosecution of the peacekeepers involved.

The UN has had a peacekeeping mission in Congo in some form since 1999 and currently has more than 12,000 troops and 1,600 police deployed, but its mandate expires in December. At the same time, the peacekeeping mission has for years been accused of abuse towards civilians, especially sexual violence.

Meanwhile, the threat to civilians from warring groups resurfaced last November when the M23 militia, defeated by Congo’s army and UN peacekeepers a decade ago, began recapturing territory in eastern Congo, displacing thousands and straining already tense relations between the UN mission and locals, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Bintou Keita, the UN’s special representative in Congo and head of the peacekeeping mission, told the UN Security Council last month that the M23 group poses a threat “beyond the current capabilities” of the peacekeeping force.

UKRAINE, BRIEFLY

  • Pope Francis hopes to meet with Patriarch Kirill, the “pro-war” leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, to promote peace when he attends a meeting of religious leaders in Kazakhstan this fall, Euronews reported. It would be the first meeting between the two since they last met in 2016 in Cuba, the first such meeting between the leaders of the two churches since the Great Schism in 1054. It would also be the first encounter between the two since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, which ignited not only a rift between the two churches, but also a rebellion within the Russian Orthodox Church: More than 150 Russian Orthodox clerics called for a stop to the war in an open letter on March 1, but which Kirill did not sign, Radio Free Europe said. Instead, Kirill has expressed solidarity with Russian authorities, prompting Pope Francis to warn the patriarch against becoming President Vladimir “Putin’s altar boy.”
  • Russia’s Supreme Court designated the Azov Regiment, a former volunteer battalion with far-right roots that was officially absorbed into Ukraine’s army, as a “terrorist” organization, Al Jazeera wrote. The top court’s decision on Tuesday allows for severe jail sentences for Azov members, who are accused of holding neo-Nazi and white supremacist beliefs.
  • United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned this week that mankind was “just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation,” citing the crisis in Ukraine as one of the conflicts increasing the risk to levels not seen since the peak of the Cold War, according to the New York Times.

DISCOVERIES

Positively Long

Past research has shown that optimism and good health go hand-in-hand: A positive mindset results in better sleep, lower stress and stronger immunity.

Now, however, a new study shows that optimistic people, regardless of race or ethnicity, also live longer, the Harvard Gazette reported.

The recent paper is a follow-up to a 2019 study that found that people with the most positive outlook had 11 to 15 percent longer lifespans compared with the least optimistic group. In that study, the majority of the participants were white, whereas this time researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health broadened their participant pool to include individuals from different racial and ethnic groups.

They analyzed data and survey responses of nearly 160,000 women in the Women’s Health Initiative, which included postmenopausal women in the US. The women were enrolled between the ages of 50 and 79 from 1993 to 1998 and were tracked for up to 26 years.

The results showed that 25 percent of participants who were the most optimistic had a 5.4 percent longer life and a 10 percent chance of living beyond the age of 90.

The team also said “the benefits of optimism may hold across diverse groups,” noting that there were no interactions between optimism and any categories of race and ethnicity.

The inclusion of various communities in research is vital for public health, according to lead author Hayami Koga. These populations have greater mortality rates than white populations, yet there has been little research on them to help shape health policy decisions.

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