The World Today for April 19, 2023

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Peace and Sabers


After the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in California – an event echoing former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year – the Chinese military staged a massive drill around the independent island that Chinese President Xi Jinping considers a breakaway territory.

As the Washington Post explained, the drill also occurred soon after French President Emmanuel Macron left China after a failed bid to tone down tensions in the region and extract promises that China wouldn’t help Russia with the war Russian President Vladimir Putin started more than a year ago.

Macron made news during his three-day visit to China by saying that France was an ally of the US, not its “vassal,” reported the BBC. The comment cast doubt on whether the West was unified against any Chinese aggression that might aim to annex Taiwan in the same way Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, claiming it was sovereign Russian land.

The uproar over Macron’s comments was so great that Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock felt impelled to speak up and say her country would help the US ward off a Chinese invasion of the island, Politico noted.

Chinese military leaders were unequivocal in at least threatening violence to gain suzerainty over Taiwan as their ships and planes flew around the region. “The troops in the theatre are ready to fight all the time and can fight at any time, resolutely crushing any form of Taiwan independence separatism and foreign interference,” the Eastern Theatre Command of China’s People’s Liberation Army said in a statement to Reuters.

As the military drills were ongoing, meanwhile, Taiwanese officials vowed to maintain vigilant air defense systems and closely track China’s forces, particularly the Shandong aircraft carrier and its support craft, as USNI News illustrated.

Still, Taiwan is highly vulnerable to any Chinese air attack, according to leaked US intelligence documents.

Global affairs guru Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy, didn’t think China would invade Taiwan anytime soon, however. In a commentary in Time magazine, Bremmer argued that Xi has been acting as a peacemaker lately – offering plans to end the Russia-Ukraine War and receiving diplomats from Europe to the Middle East. That diplomacy has resulted in Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with Iran but also anti-Taiwan developments, like Honduras dropping its recognition of Taiwan to improve relations with officials in Beijing, as CNN reported. But analysts say it also shows that Xi is not in the mood to start conflicts.

When Foreign Policy magazine surveyed international relations scholars about the chance of China invading Taiwan, only 6 percent thought it might happen.

Saber-rattling is always risky, though.


Bullets and Blame


An internationally supported 24-hour ceasefire agreed Tuesday between Sudan’s military and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) was over as soon as it had begun, Reuters reported.

The ceasefire was supposed to bring a temporary end to four days of intense fighting that since Saturday has left at least 270 people dead and 2,600 injured, Axios reported. But loud gunfire could be heard on news broadcasts from the capital Khartoum when the 6 p.m. start time passed, and witnesses reported airstrikes, tank fire, and mass troop movements.

“We have not received any indications here that there’s been a halt in the fighting,” United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarraic told reporters in New York.

The truce came about following international calls to end the conflict between the warring factions, amid reports that diplomats and international organizations had been attacked.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with army leader Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan and the RSF chief, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo – better known as Hemedti – after a US diplomatic convoy was attacked Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and other aid groups suspended some aid programs following attacks on their employees and offices. Three World Food Program workers were killed in the fighting in North Darfur on Saturday, as violent clashes erupted in Khartoum and other cities across the country.

The conflict began after increasing tensions between Burhan and Dagalo, two military leaders who had orchestrated a coup in October 2021, disrupting Sudan’s path to democracy following the popular overthrow of longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir four years ago.

The disagreements escalated quickly, especially after the military, the RSF, and a coalition of civilian parties reached a preliminary political agreement in December, in which the army pledged to relinquish control.

The recent outbreak of violence poses a serious threat to Sudan, raising the risk of a wider conflict and further hindering the nation’s transition to civilian governance.

Following the Money


Slovakia became the third European Union country to ban food imports from Ukraine on Tuesday, a decision that follows complaints from farmers claiming that a glut of Ukrainian grain is causing them economic hardship even as countries in the Middle East and Africa remain desperate for grain, the Associated Press reported.

The ban will affect grain imports and other foodstuffs, including sugar, fruit, vegetables, and honey products.

Slovakia’s move follows similar ones by Poland and Hungary over the weekend, prompting objections from the European Union, which manages trade on behalf of the 27-nation bloc and objects to unilateral or uncoordinated measures.

EU officials said that a solution must be found that respects bloc laws, noting that “it’s too early” to give a definite answer on the legality of the move, according to Politico.

Five EU countries that neighbor Ukraine – Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland – have asked the bloc to urgently address the issue, warning that they can’t allow their own farmers to bear the cost of disruption that Ukrainian agricultural products are causing their markets.

Bulgaria is considering introducing a similar ban.

Ukraine and Russia are major global suppliers of wheat, barley, and sunflower oil. The Ukrainian conflict has disrupted supplies to developing nations and pushed millions more into food insecurity.

The EU reacted by lifting tariffs and trade duties on Ukraine, which diverted Ukraine’s grain flows intended for Africa and the Middle East through Europe.

However, much of the food remained in neighboring countries, creating a glut that has hit local farmers.

Analysts noted that the decisions undermine the solidarity of the EU and also show the influence farmers’ lobbies have on policy. They described the bans as an attempt by such groups to increase support for the agricultural sector, which already receives generous support from the bloc and national governments.

Total Recall


Tunisian authorities closed the headquarters of the opposition party Ennahdha Tuesday, a day after its leader was arrested in what government critics have described as efforts by President Kais Saied to quash dissent, Al Jazeera reported.

Party representatives said police raided Ennahdha’s building and ordered its closure for a minimum of three days. They added that other party offices elsewhere in Tunisia have also been shuttered.

The closures come after authorities detained party leader Rached Ghannouchi on Monday for questioning. Government officials confirmed that his arrest came following statements by Ghannouchi, who warned that Tunisia faced a civil war if any of the country’s political forces – including political Islamists and leftists – were excluded.

The detention is the latest in an ongoing crackdown on political opponents and personalities: Since February, authorities in the North African nation have detained more than 20 individuals, including politicians, businessmen, and trade unionists.

Saied said those detained were “terrorists” involved in a “conspiracy against state security.”

Ennahdha, a self-styled “Muslim Democrat” party, was the largest in Tunisia’s parliament before Kais Saied dissolved the chamber in July 2021.

Since then, Saied has been ruling by decree, having seized wide-reaching powers through a series of moves opponents have dubbed a “coup.”

The president’s opponents accuse him of restoring authoritarian rule in Tunisia, the only democracy to emerge from the Middle East’s Arab Spring protests more than a decade ago.


Flora: S.O.S.

Scientists have discovered that plants scream bloody murder when in distress, the Washington Post reported.

It’s their cry for help, researchers said.

To discover this, biologist Lilach Hadany and her colleagues conducted a study involving various plants, including tomatoes, tobacco, and cacti.

The researchers placed the plants in soundproof boxes and positioned ultrasonic microphones nearby. They subjected the plants to different conditions, such as cutting their stems or depriving them of water.

Their findings revealed that the plants emitted popping, ultrasonic sounds when they experienced stressors such as cutting, dehydration, or infection. These sounds were inaudible to the human ear, with frequencies ranging from 40 to 80 kilohertz.

The team explained that these noises are actually the sound of popping air bubbles produced in the plant’s xylem – a tissue that moves water. They noted that the frequency and loudness of the noises changed depending on the plant’s state.

For example, dehydrated vegetation generated dozens of sounds at shorter intervals and would create more noise as their conditions worsened.

The researchers also used artificial intelligence to better identify the type of plant and its condition based on the volume, frequency, and tempo of its sounds.

Meanwhile, they wondered whether other creatures could hear these noises and if they would respond to the distress signals emitted by the plants.

Co-author Yossi Yovel said he hopes that the findings can be used to help farmers care better for their plants.

“The big question is whether animals, or perhaps some other organism, evolved to use these sounds,” Yovel said. “There’s a huge new world of possibilities.”

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