The Putin-Kim summit concludes. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin had a much-ballyhooed summit in Vladivostok. Putin found a way to voice support for both Pyongyang’s and Washington’s respective positions in the nuclear negotiations, but no tangible outcomes from the meeting are immediately apparent. (Kim’s reported departure from Vladivostok half a day earlier than planned was likely for security reasons and probably not any sort of signal of displeasure with Moscow.) Russia’s direct interests in the fate of North Korea’s nuclear program are relatively minimal. But it’s keen to use the issue to gain leverage against the U.S. and its allies on other issues, and thus it has repeatedly been trying to find ways to keep a seat at the table. One way that Russia – along with China – can, and probably eventually will, disrupt the status quo is by easing off sanctions enforcement. Willing participation from both Moscow and Beijing is critical to sustaining the United States’ “maximum pressure campaign,” with sanctions being one of the few remaining U.S. sources of leverage over Pyongyang. But both Moscow and Beijing are wary of getting slapped with additional secondary sanctions by the U.S. over North Korea or jeopardizing talks on bigger issues with Washington. Thus, both will hold the sanctions relief card in reserve for the time being.
Russia-China coordination beyond the Korean Peninsula? Putin met today with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the second Belt and Road Forum. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Xi called on Russia to effectively merge the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union’s infrastructure projects with those of the Belt and Road Initiative. On Thursday, Beijing made clear its support for Russia’s position on a hot-button issue: A Chinese envoy to the United Nations reiterated that Beijing opposes outside interference in eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, following a meeting with Xi at the Belt and Road summit, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said he’d been promised Beijing’s support for Belgrade’s approach to Kosovo. (Serbia’s deputy prime minister also said China would invest 7.5 billion euros, or $8.4 billion, in infrastructure in Serbia.) Finally, representatives from Beijing, Moscow and Washington met jointly on Thursday to try to nudge the Taliban into participating in talks with the Afghan government and other stakeholders in the country’s peace process.
A trade deal gets closer. Xi is considering a visit to the U.S. for a “signing summit” on trade as early as June, according to unnamed sources quoted by the South China Morning Post – if, that is, the two sides could reach agreement on a handful of outstanding issues. To push the negotiations over the finish line, Washington is reportedly considering conceding to Chinese demands for weaker protections on U.S. pharmaceutical products in China. Meanwhile, in his speech at the Belt and Road Forum, Xi pledged that Beijing wouldn’t weaken the yuan to keep Chinese exports competitive. He also pledged to “overhaul and abolish unjustified regulations, subsidies and practices that impede fair competition and distort the market.” The former pledge is easy; U.S. accusations to the contrary notwithstanding, for years now, Chinese manipulation of the yuan has been focused primarily on preventing it from going into free fall. The latter pledge is far trickier; even if Beijing was sincere about ending export subsidies, political and economic constraints would make doing so a lengthy process, and China won’t hesitate to reverse course if and when the going gets tough. This is the biggest factor keeping a U.S.-China trade deal just out of reach.
Attitudes toward Scottish independence. In a new survey conducted by Survation, 61 percent of likely voters in Scotland said they would support remaining in the United Kingdom were another independence referendum to be held. This is significantly higher than the results of the 2014 referendum, in which 55.3 percent of voters opposed independence. On Wednesday, Scotland’s first minister and leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, laid out her plans to hold another vote before the current Scottish parliament’s time is up in May 2021. Of course, polls are useful but imperfect, and a lot can change in a year or two. A year before the Brexit vote, for example, a Survation survey found that 54 percent of likely voters would opt to remain in the European Union.
More French reform efforts. In his latest bid to pacify the “yellow vest” protesters, French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday announced 5 billion euros ($5.6 billion) worth of income tax cuts and the return of inflation-indexing for pensions beginning in 2020. To pay for those changes, he said the government would close corporate tax loopholes and encourage citizens to work longer. Macron also promised more decentralization of political power, including delegation of decision-making powers over transportation and housing to local authorities, and he vowed that no more hospitals or schools would close without the consent of local mayors for the rest of his presidential term (which ends April 2022). The French president also used the more than two-hour television address and Q&A session to sell his EU reform proposals, including cutting out of the border-free Schengen zone those EU states that refuse to accept refugees.
- Ukraine suspended the transit of Russian oil through the Druzhba pipeline because delivery points in Slovakia and Hungary have refused to accept the supplies.
- Russia is starting a large-scale reconstruction of military airfields throughout the country.
- The Islamic State has captured six villages that had been under Taliban control in eastern Afghanistan, according to local officials.
- China is holding joint naval exercises with six Southeast Asian nations – Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam and two unnamed countries – off Shandong province, according to Beijing. China and Russia will hold joint naval drills next week.
- The U.S. economy grew by an estimated 3.2 percent in the first quarter, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which said real gross domestic product growth in the fourth quarter of 2018 was 2.2 percent.
- Moldova’s Defense Ministry announced that the reconstruction of a U.S.-funded training facility will be complete by this summer. It is part of the country’s main military training center.
- Officials from Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic are expected to announce on Friday the resumption of talks to resolve a dispute that has left Northern Ireland without a government for more than two years, Irish broadcaster RTE reported. The talks would reportedly begin after local Northern Irish elections on May 2 and would have a roughly three-week limit.
- Dutch telecommunications firm Royal KPN announced that China’s Huawei would be permitted to supply its “non-core” 5G network components, such as radio equipment, a decision reflective of the British policy that leaked earlier this week.
- The United Kingdom and China will meet in London in mid-June for another round of their Economic and Financial Dialogue, British Finance Minister Philip Hammond said Thursday.
- German automotive corporation Daimler’s first-quarter results showed a 16 percent drop in operating profit compared to the first quarter of 2018.
- The Philippine communications minister said Manila sees no evidence that Chinese telecom giant Huawei “is a threat to national security.”