Bolton’s departure. On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that John Bolton would no longer be serving as national security adviser. Today, Bolton claimed that he was not fired but rather resigned. Whatever the case may be, one of the more controversial figures in the Trump administration, and one of the architects of the U.S. war in Iraq – which led to a massive imbalance of power in the Middle East that paved the way for Iranian expansion – is out of the White House. The announcement came days after Trump canceled a private meeting with the Taliban at Camp David. The relationship between the president and his adviser has been emblematic of the U.S. push and pull toward the world, and Trump claimed that Bolton’s views, which were largely seen as hawkish toward Iran and Venezuela, no longer aligned with the president’s policy objectives. 

China in Central Asia. On Wednesday, during Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s visit to Beijing, China and Kazakhstan agreed to a “permanent comprehensive strategic partnership.” Kazakhstan is hoping to boost its agricultural exports to China and, in return, receive support in finance, energy, transportation and logistics under China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Central Asia is Russia’s historical sphere of influence, but as China has grown more powerful, it too has sought influence in this strategically located part of the world that connects East to West. This collision of interests is one reason we remain skeptical of a long-term Sino-Russian alliance.

Al-Sadr goes to Iran … again. Muqtada al-Sadr, a controversial Iraqi political leader and Shiite cleric, paid another visit to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran in the past week. While al-Sadr holds no official office, he leads Iraq’s Sairoon party, which won the most seats in Iraq’s 2018 election. Al-Sadr had close ties to Iran during the height of the U.S. war in Iraq but has since focused on defending Iraq’s national sovereignty from Iranian overreach. Al-Sadr is, in other words, willing to play whatever cards he needs to depending on the circumstance. It’s hard to tell what a visit to Iran means, but if nothing else, it’s clear that he’s keeping communication open with his erstwhile ally.

China and the Philippines at sea. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Tuesday that Manila intends to move forward with a contentious maritime oil and gas exploration deal with China – and that his government would ignore The Hague’s landmark 2016 arbitration ruling invalidating China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea, including waters around the resource-rich Reed Bank in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Duterte said that, during last week’s visit to Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping had agreed to a 60-40 revenue sharing scheme favoring the Philippines. As we’ve previously noted, China’s primary goal here is not to take the hydrocarbons for itself but to force regional states into joint exploration agreements that implicitly acknowledge China’s distended territorial claims. As a result, it has repeatedly blocked Manila’s attempts to launch joint exploration with firms from other countries. The Philippines needs the gas, and thus it’s reluctantly going along with China. But the deal may run afoul of the Philippine constitution, not to mention nationalist political forces in the country. Indeed, attempts at energy cooperation with China have contributed to the downfall of a Philippine leader in the past.

Honorable Mentions