The clock is ticking for Theresa May. British media is abuzz with rumors that the prime minister’s pro-Brexit Tory critics will soon garner enough support to call a vote of no-confidence on her leadership of the party. They need the backing of 48 Tory lawmakers to trigger the vote, but they’ll need an additional 111 to win it. Whatever the outcome, the U.K. will be left with few options in the four months until it officially leaves the European Union. If May were to lose, replacing her could waste valuable time the Tories don’t have (there is no obvious successor among Tory Brexiteers). A different prime minister from the Brexiteer faction could threaten the EU with a no-deal Brexit withdrawal, but that would be political suicide. (Downing Street’s own estimates say a no-deal Brexit could cost the country as much as 7.7 percent gross domestic product growth.) If an agreement can’t be reached, London would request an extension of Article 50, buying more time to negotiate, and for all its tough talk about extensions, the EU would acquiesce. Pushing the divorce through the House of Commons will be a messy process, but the alternatives – save for an even softer Brexit – are off the table.
The signal and the noise in North Korea. North Korea briefly put us on high alert late Thursday when it announced that Kim Jong Un had overseen the test of a “newly developed ultramodern tactical weapon.” Unconfirmed reports from Seoul say it was a long-range artillery system. All we know for sure is that it wasn’t a nuclear or long-range missile test. We’re flagging this partly because there’s still a profound misunderstanding of what does and does not amount to a North Korean provocation. On Monday, for example, The New York Times published an article based on a Center for Strategic and International Studies report chock full of satellite imagery showing what appeared to be camouflaged missile facilities in the North. The Times – and, subsequently, outlets across the globe – offered the bases as evidence of a “grave deception” by Pyongyang and some sort of violation of the detente with the U.S. So here’s a recorded announcement: North Korea never pledged to hand over its nukes or dismantle its long-range missile arsenal. It certainly never pledged to stop developing military capabilities altogether. President Donald Trump’s premature declaration in June that the North no longer poses a threat to the U.S. is not the standard against which the negotiations should be measured. Remember, both sides can stomach a diplomatic impasse so long as the North refrains from testing intercontinental ballistic missiles that can strike the U.S. mainland and so long as the U.S. and South Korea do not resume major military exercises that simulate invasion. Those are the red lines – everything else is a tactic meant to enhance negotiating positions. More important, then, are the military exercises Washington and Seoul resumed last week. (The Pentagon told Tokyo major drills will resume next year, according to Japanese media.) Thursday’s test may well have been a warning to Seoul to stop participating in the drills, but it’s too early to say for sure.
Japan and Russia stand on the brink of peace? The leaders of both countries, which have technically been at war since World War II, said they would now accelerate peace talks. Negotiations will be based on a joint declaration issued in 1956 in which the Soviets agreed to return two of the four southernmost Japanese-claimed but Russian-held Kuril Islands. But on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted that transferring sovereignty might not be as simple as the joint declaration made it seem, and that everything is still up for negotiation. Russia has an interest in settling the matter to advance energy cooperation with Japan, but the Kurils have long been a source of leverage that Moscow has used to discourage Japan from acting against Russia on issues such as Ukraine sanctions. Ceding the islands is also politically unpopular in Russia, so don’t expect Moscow to move quickly here. What’s perhaps more notable is that Japan has softened its position. For decades, Tokyo’s position has been that the status of all four islands must be settled before it would sign a peace treaty. And on Friday, Asahi, a daily newspaper in Japan, reported that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had promised Putin that U.S. troops would not be allowed to set up shop in the Kurils, which could be used to block Russia’s access to the Western Pacific.
Competition in the South Pacific. Meanwhile, Abe became the first Japanese prime minister to visit the northern Australian city of Darwin – home to more than 1,500 U.S. Marines – since it was bombed by Japanese forces in World War II. Abe and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison agreed to push forward a reciprocal access agreement to facilitate joint military exercises between Australia and Japan – a deal similar to one Japan and India are in the process of finalizing. Not to be outdone, Chinese President Xi Jinping is in Papua New Guinea for talks with the island nation’s prime minister, Peter O’Neill, on setting up a bilateral comprehensive strategic partnership. Conspicuously, during Xi’s visit, the governor of Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island hinted that he may try to block plans announced by Canberra on Nov. 1 to build a naval base on the island.
- The People’s Bank of China demanded that the country’s top bankers boost lending to small businesses amid new data releases showing that new loans fell by nearly half in October.
- U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer denied reports that the White House has abandoned plans to implement a new round of tariffs on China.
- Turkey reportedly ruled out an offer by the White House to expel exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. In return, Ankara would have had to scale back its investigation into the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
- India has begun the process of buying 24 naval multi-role MH-60 helicopters from the U.S.
- Defense ministers from India and China agreed to boost military exchanges.
- Sri Lankan lawmakers traded punches and threw chili powder and furniture at each other in the second day of brawling in parliament.
- U.S.-led coalition airstrikes on Islamic State positions in Deir el-Zour, Syria, killed at least 18 people, according to monitors.
- Pentagon officials said the U.S. military will reduce the number of troops participating in counterterrorism operations in Africa by 10 percent over the next three years to shift focus to countering Russia and China.
- Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that Brexit had strengthened the case for Scottish independence.