The World Today for January 19, 2024

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NEED TO KNOW

Gross National Gloom

BHUTAN

In Bhutan’s recent elections – the fourth since 2008, when the Himalayan nation replaced its traditional monarchy with a parliamentary form of government – the opposition People’s Democratic Party received a mandate to solve the economic crisis that has been roiling the South Asian country.

That was a clear expression of unhappiness with the state of things in this small country sandwiched between India and China.

In the past five years, Bhutan’s anemic economy has grown by a mere 1.7 percent, reported the Associated Press. Unemployment is rampant. Young people, 29 percent of whom are jobless, are leaving for opportunities abroad. Around 15,000 Bhutanese sought visas to move to Australia in the year before July 2023, about 2 percent of the country’s population, added Barron’s.

The country’s famous “Gross National Happiness” index, a tool that, as El País detailed, Bhutanese officials established to provide a better measure of health and prosperity than traditional measures such as gross domestic product, often prioritizes social welfare policies over growth. But this election showed how many Bhutanese might want growth over state-conceived notions of contentment, contended Al Jazeera.

On the campaign trail, People’s Democratic Party leader Tshering Tobgay, a former prime minister, blasted former Prime Minister Lotay Tshering for his inept response to the coronavirus pandemic and vowed to enact a $180 million spending plan to garner foreign investment and tourism revenues, Nikkei Asia wrote.

Still, Bhutan can be expensive for most tourists: It requires a visa with a daily fee of $100 to promote sustainable development, plus expenses to ensure its industry grows in a “high value, low volume” manner.

Meanwhile, Tobgay will also take over the development of a new green city in Gelephu, a small town on the Indian border. Initiated late last year by Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and supported with seed money by American billionaire Peter Thiel, who is likely no longer involved in the deal, Forbes reported, the new city would be founded on sustainable ecological principles and hopefully draw tech types to the country to start businesses.

Internationally, relations with India and China are the major issues facing Bhutan. The country of 800,000 people has close economic and strategic ties to India, whose leaders orchestrated the country’s foreign policy for years.

Technically, Bhutan today has no formal relations with China, explained Reuters. Instead, as the Japan Times discussed, Bhutan and China inked a “cooperation agreement” in October as part of their talks over disputed borders on Bhutan’s northern frontier. India observed the talks surrounding this agreement closely. If China secures land from Bhutan, Indian leaders would certainly balk.

Indian broadcaster NDTV cited satellite images that suggested that China was building illegal settlements on Bhutanese land to force its claims. Some of this land even belongs to Bhutan’s royal family.

Today, Bhutan’s voters want economic opportunities. Traditionally, small countries wedged between enormous neighbors can balance one against the other to gain those opportunities. The pressure, says El País, will be on Tobgay to deliver while keeping the kingdom safe and whole – and happy.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

The Slow Leak

PAKISTAN/IRAN/ BALUCHISTAN

Pakistan launched retaliatory strikes Thursday on militants in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province, raising fears of a new conflict breaking out in a region already tense due to the war between Israel and Hamas and its reverberations, the Associated Press reported.

Iran said that at least nine people, including three women and four children, were killed in the strikes on its territory. Pakistan, meanwhile, said it had killed “a number of terrorists.”

The Pakistani attacks followed Iranian strikes on Pakistani territory Tuesday that killed two children, according to Pakistani officials. Both sides said they had targeted separatist militant groups: Iran allegedly targeted Jaish al-Adl, which it says bases itself in Pakistan, while Pakistan targeted the Baluchistan Liberation Army and the Baluchistan Liberation Front, allegedly hosted by Iran.

Both countries said they were defending their sovereignty.

For years, these insurgent groups have fought for an independent Baluchistan for ethnic Baluch areas in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and have targeted Iranian and Pakistani security officials, frustrating both countries.

And while the Pakistan-Iran border has seen occasional outbreaks of violence in recent years, this week’s attacks came amid growing concerns over rising instability in the region following the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas, which is supported by Iran, the Washington Post said.

Over the past week, the United States has carried out strikes against Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen, who have been attacking ships in the Red Sea. Meanwhile, Iran has attacked targets in Iraq and Syria this week, allegedly to root out terrorists and spies.

Still, the issue between Pakistan and Iran has remained mostly localized. Iran and Pakistan are generally on good terms but both have blamed the insurgencies in the lawless border region as being fueled from abroad. For example, Pakistan has accused Iran of ignoring militants operating in its territory, while Iran has said militants in Pakistan have been receiving Israeli support, while Pakistan looks away.

Meanwhile, analysts said Pakistan can’t afford for such an escalation with its neighbor. Pakistan, already shaky economically, is banking on Chinese plans for a trade corridor via Baluchistan.

Iran, on the other hand, is escalating violence in the region to play to a domestic audience after an Islamic State terror attack in Kerman killed more than 90 people and left Iran’s officials looking weak, said analysts. That is in addition to Israeli attacks on their allies, Hamas and Hezbollah, US attacks on their allies in Yemen, and domestic unrest lingering since last year.

“The government and military have been under immense pressure,” Abdullah Khan from the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies think tank in Islamabad told AP. “The public perception of a strong army is not as it used to be, so it had to respond.”

Unfriended

NAURU

The Pacific state of Nauru decided to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan and recognize China instead this week, a few days after the Taiwanese elected a Beijing-critic as their president, shrinking the country’s list of allies and threatening an imbalance of power in the region, Reuters reported.

China claims Taiwan as part of its territory, leaving other countries obliged to have ties with only one or the other. While many governments recognize the People’s Republic while maintaining informal relations with Taiwan, a dozen have decided to have embassies in Taipei rather than in Beijing.

Nauru is the latest of 10 countries that have switched in favor of China since 2016. It joined other Pacific nations, such as Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, that made similar moves in 2019, often out of economic interest.

It had already done so between 2002 and 2005. Reverting to that stance is “in the best interest” of Nauru and its people, the Nauruan government said.

Last week, William Lai, dubbed a “dangerous separatist” by Beijing, won Taiwan’s presidential election and is set to enter office on May 20. Taiwanese officials accused Beijing of ambushing Nauru in the sensitive post-election period.

The Chinese-Taiwanese race for diplomatic relations in the Pacific Ocean is also a game of influence, of which the US and Australia are also players and “Dollar diplomacy” is a powerful pawn, wrote Reuters.

Australia has close ties with Nauru. The tiny island currently receives substantial aid from Australia and uses its currency. It also hosts a refugee center on behalf of Australia.

Nonetheless, an Australian bank’s decision to close operations in Nauru and the government’s plan to wind down the refugee center have signaled dwindling investment. Taiwan said this was to blame for Nauru’s decision, which the Australian government denied, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

Australia had already made a deal last year with Vanuatu, another Pacific nation and Taiwan ally which, in exchange for climate asylum for its citizens, granted Australia veto power over foreign affairs – and thus over a possible recognition of China.

The Australian government now faces pressure to strike a similar agreement with Nauru. Although this would not reverse Nauru’s decision, proponents argued it would curb Chinese influence in the Pacific.

Punching Above Its Weight

BONAIRE

A group of individuals from the Caribbean island of Bonaire is suing the Dutch government, accusing it of human rights violations for insufficiently addressing the climate crisis, the Guardian reported.

The lawsuit, filed in The Hague by eight individuals in collaboration with Greenpeace Netherlands, is demanding a swifter reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and increased support for vulnerable territories grappling with the impacts of climate change.

Bonaire, a Dutch special municipality, faces imminent threats from climate change due to its low-lying nature, rising temperatures and declining rainfall, according to an October report from the Dutch meteorological institute.

Studies commissioned by Greenpeace show that a rise in sea levels could permanently submerge parts of Bonaire by 2050, jeopardizing its cultural heritage, tourism industry, and exacerbating health issues. The islanders demand the Netherlands tighten its climate goals, aiming for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, a decade earlier than the current target.

Despite holding discussions with ministers, the plaintiffs contend that the Dutch government has failed to enact concrete changes to protect the islands. The legal action seeks to address the alleged negligence, emphasizing the right to life and respect for private and family life as essential human rights.

The lawsuit is part of a global surge in climate litigation, mirroring the landmark Urgenda Foundation case in the Netherlands in 2019, which forced the Dutch government to improve its environmental policies.

The plaintiffs hope to establish the Dutch government’s legal responsibilities toward all its territories, underscoring the vulnerability of island communities in the face of the climate emergency. Analysts said a ruling in favor of the Bonaire group could not only benefit Bonaire but set a precedent for other Dutch Caribbean islands and contribute to global climate efforts.

UKRAINE, BRIEFLY

This week, Ukrainian military intelligence said that Russia was now attacking defense industry sites, Business Insider reported, after long aiming missiles at Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Despite killing thousands of Ukrainians and leaving others without heating in the wintertime, the initial strategy failed to tame the nation’s will to fight. However, Russia’s new target selection could give it the upper hand in the conflict, analysts said, as Ukraine’s ammunition supply from the West remains uncertain.

Ukraine, too, is adapting its strategy. On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said his country’s priority this year was to reclaim control of its skies, Al Jazeera reported, adding that the move would determine the outcome of the war. Kuleba’s statement comes after the Ukrainian military shot down two Russian command planes flying over the Sea of Azov on Sunday, the latest in a series of awkward setbacks for Russia.

Meanwhile, Moscow’s ally Belarus on Wednesday issued a revamped military doctrine that, for the first time, permitted the use of nuclear weapons, the Independent reported. The country has been one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most crucial allies, especially during the invasion’s launch. It began last month storing some of Russia’s nuclear warheads, causing outrage among NATO member states.

The threat of the conflict spilling over to the rest of Europe has begun to worry some officials. After two Swedish defense officials told the public last week to brace for war, the German newspaper Bild this Tuesday reported that a leaked document showed Germany’s armed forces were also preparing for that eventuality. The document allegedly provided a month-by-month scenario of a “hybrid war” Russia would launch on NATO’s eastern front starting in February 2024.

Meanwhile, state-owned banks in China, a close friend of Russia, have been heightening restrictions on their Russian clients to avoid US secondary sanctions on foreign firms aiding Moscow, Bloomberg reported.

At home, the Kremlin continues to name its enemies. Renowned writer Boris Akunin – the pen name of Grigori Chkhartishvili – was designated as a foreign agent last Friday. On Saturday, a court of the Russian Orthodox Church ruled that a liberal priest, Aleksiy Uminsky, should be expelled from the institution for refusing to recite the now compulsory “Prayer for Holy Rus,” the Guardian reported.

For Moscow, the war remains an ideological one. While Moldovan authorities have said they were overwhelmed with citizenship applications from Russian nationals, Putin claimed on Tuesday that exiled Russians were returning because of gender-neutral toilets abroad, Newsweek reported. Nonetheless, a St. Petersburg lawmaker pointed out that 25 percent of Russians had no centralized sewage system, adding that a “backyard latrine-style toilet” is as gender-neutral as it gets.

DISCOVERIES

The Indelible Joy of Mousekeeping

Welshman Rodney Holbrook, 75, was in his backyard shed in October when he realized the bird food he was storing had been placed into a pair of shoes. “Something strange is going on here,” he thought.

He installed an infrared camera in the shed to figure out the mystery, and found that at night, instead of a poltergeist, a mouse came to straighten things up, the Washington Post reported.

The rodent, obviously disturbed by clutter, would explore Holbrook’s messy table and use its tiny mouth to pick up items such as nails, corks, or even a screwdriver, and place them in a small box. Night, after night, after night.

Holbrook nicknamed it “Welsh Tidy Mouse” to avoid confusion with another mouse displaying a similar passion for housekeeping – or mousekeeping, if you will. In 2019, a rodent collecting items in Bristol was jokingly dubbed the “Brexit mouse” for allegedly squirreling away items in preparation for the UK’s departure from the European Union.

Regardless, captivated Brits have since been wondering why mice are so obsessed with tidying up. One simple answer, pest-control specialist Gareth Davis told the newspaper, could be that they are simply “hoarding everything that could be useful in the future.”

But scientists say it’s not that simple. Mice, researcher Megan Jackson told the BBC, are “really cognitively complex.” She monitors mice in her work, which focuses on motivational behavior. In her current study, she has found that mice show a pattern in their foraging behavior. The repetitiveness of it would indicate that they find it rewarding.

Jackson added that although the makeshift nest that mice are creating is being disturbed every day, the animals still enjoy the process of putting things back into it, and into order. As French author Albert Camus once wrote, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

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