Alliances shift in Syria. For about as long as the U.S. has been engaged in operations against the Islamic State in Syria, the People’s Protection Units, a Syrian Kurdish militia funded by the U.S. and better known as the YPG, has done the bulk of Washington’s dirty work. So when U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly announced a quick end to U.S. involvement in Syria — a move that opened the door for Turkey to uproot Kurdish positions along the Turkey-Syria border — the YPG reached out to an unlikely partner for protection against a Turkish invasion: the Syrian government. On Friday, the rebels asked officials in Damascus to deploy troops to the city of Manbij and other Kurdish-held areas in northern Syria. The government is said to have complied. (Notably, accounts differ. Russia and Iran say Syria now controls Manbij, while the U.S., Turkey and local rebel groups say it doesn’t.) Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara has “no interest” in Manbij so long as the YPG leaves the city. But nothing is settled, and the fallout from the U.S. withdrawal is just beginning. Turkey may be happy to see the Kurds go, but if Syrian forces – and, by extension, Iran itself – gain a foothold on Turkey’s doorstep, it’s a bit of a Pyrrhic victory. Unsurprisingly, on Friday, Turkey’s primary rebel proxy group in Syria said its convoys were moving with some Turkish forces toward Manbij to “liberate” the town. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan are expected to meet soon to decide everyone’s fate.

Beijing vs. Marxists. Chinese authorities broke up a small student protest at the prestigious Peking University on Friday, a day after the arrest of a prominent activist on campus. Ironic, considering the protesters belonged to a Marxist group. This is just the latest in a string of small-scale clashes between student Marxist groups and authorities across China this year. The government cracks down on human rights groups and pro-democracy activists all the time, and the country’s economic woes have only given Beijing more urgency to quash any political discontent that arises from them. But should the Communist Party of China really be that concerned about student groups that would presumably be sensitive to what it’s trying to accomplish? The short answer is: actually, yes. The long answer is twofold. One, Beijing fears any civil society organization — whether Christian churches, labor unions, veterans’ groups or Marxist student groups — capable of stoking dissent and mobilizing opposition to the government, regardless of their particular beliefs. Two, the current leadership is sensitive to anything that challenges the ideological underpinnings of its authoritarian rule — and, perhaps most concerning, gives one of the many factions that have lost power under Xi Jinping an opportunity to undermine his legitimacy with the public.

China and India pretend they’re not playing a bigger game. Several stories from the past week illustrate the precariousness of the Indo-Pacific competition. The Chinese government has denied that it used Kenya’s port in Mombasa as collateral for its funding of a rail line that will connect the port to Nairobi. This comes a week after a leaked report from Kenya’s auditor general’s office showed that, when the rail deal was struck in 2013, the Kenyan government had agreed to waive its sovereignty over the port – which China built – if it fails to repay the loan. In Pakistan, meanwhile, the government insisted that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) — one of China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative projects — had no military purpose. This comes a week after a New York Times report claimed Beijing and Islamabad had a secret agreement to build fighter jets and other military assets in Pakistan as part of the CPEC deal. On Thursday, official sources in India told PTI that New Delhi is not pursuing any new military facilities in the Maldives in exchange for some $1.4 billion in assistance it provided to help Male pay back massive loans from Beijing.

Chinese and Indian aid and investment in Indo-Pacific countries shouldn’t be seen solely as sinister “debt traps” to gain military advantage. Both countries have plenty of reasons to invest there that have nothing to do with their geopolitical competition. But the fact of the matter is that strategic location is the main factor drawing outside interest to countries like Kenya, Pakistan and the Maldives. The latest round of denials from Beijing and New Delhi merely illustrates just how much both countries are concerned about managing domestic political blowback in these states — and, therefore, just how flimsy any security strategy that hinges on fleeting political influence abroad would be.

Honorable Mentions

  • Moscow says Russia and the U.K. agreed to return some staff to their respective embassies after the expulsion of dozens of diplomats in early 2018.
  • China’s central bank said it would not engage in major monetary stimulus, citing controllable financial risks and acceptable economic growth.
  • Beijing says new courts aimed at bolstering intellectual property protections in China — a major demand of the U.S. — will begin hearing cases in January.
  • In 2018, foreign direct investment into India outpaced investment into China for the first time in more than 20 years, according to Dealogic.
  • Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have started to vacate the strategic port city of Hodeida as part of a U.N.-sponsored peace agreement signed earlier this month.