U.S. strategic competitors – China, North Korea, Russia and Iran – have proved resilient in the face of adversity. China, where we have cataloged rumors of weakness in recent weeks, launched a government-backed investigation into domestic production of faulty vaccines. This may seem like tabloid fodder, especially compared to President Xi Jinping’s visit to Africa and other stories, but the government’s willingness to take on a scandal affecting hundreds of thousands of people in the full light of day and in the midst of an intensifying trade war could say a great deal about China’s confidence (or lack thereof) in the legitimacy of its government.
North Korean state media warned the country to brace for rough economic times ahead as the Trump administration expressed frustration at the pace of progress in the U.S.-North Korea negotiation process. This may suggest North Korea is prepared to drive a hard bargain.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a full-length interview, published on the presidential website, on pension reform. This is hardly the behavior of a man spooked by the domestic reaction to reform proposals.
Iran’s economic problems have not been solved – in fact, the Iranian rial hit new lows against the U.S. dollar and other currencies on Monday. The weakness of Iran’s currency has set off domestic unrest in recent months, to say nothing of continued protests over water supply issues and a terrorist attack in northeast Iran over the weekend. And yet Iran appears unbowed.
Indeed, tensions are mounting between Iran and the United States. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gave a rousing speech on Sunday in which he claimed Iran could close the Strait of Hormuz, through which so much oil passes every day, and, mysteriously, other international waterways. He also said negotiating with the U.S. was futile and warned U.S. President Donald Trump not to “play with the lion’s tail.” Trump issued a statement on Twitter promising to respond strongly if Iran continued to threaten the U.S. It’s unclear exactly what Iran is threatening to do and why it has chosen now to do it. It’s also unclear how this will affect U.S-Russia relations. After all, Iran’s supreme leader sent an envoy to Moscow just before the Helsinki summit, where Syria was among the top agenda items.
Violence is breaking out in Pakistan as elections approach. A candidate for the opposition party Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, was killed by a suicide bomb on Sunday. A candidate from a smaller party survived an assassination attempt the same day. Rumors abound over the role the military is playing in all this. A Pakistani judge on the Islamabad High Court gave a speech on Saturday in which he spoke ominously of various attempts to curb the independence of the judiciary. The Wall Street Journal, citing anonymous sources, reported late last week that the military was using its intelligence arm to benefit the PTI and defeat the incumbent Pakistan Muslim League party.
These developments are all the more important in light of the situation in Afghanistan. Pakistan has reportedly dispatched a 28-member delegation to Afghanistan to discuss improving bilateral relations with the Afghan government. This comes just a week after The New York Times reported that the U.S. was pursuing direct talks with the Taliban, a move that has set off a media storm in local Afghan papers and exhortations to the Afghan government to make sure it is a part of the negotiation process. U.S.-Pakistan relations have deteriorated in the past year; Washington believes Pakistan isn’t doing enough to fight terrorism or stabilize Afghanistan.
Rounding out today’s memo are the reports that Egypt is once again under serious domestic political pressure. Egypt’s strongman president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, gave a speech in which he said there are people who want to bring the government down. He added that these plots were the most serious threat Egypt has faced in years – which is really saying something, considering Egyptian history in the past few years has featured the departure of Hosni Mubarak in the Arab Spring, the election of the Muslim Brotherhood and the subsequent military coup to replace Mohammed Morsi. El-Sissi has the military’s support, but Egypt’s troubles are largely economic.
- Spain’s conservative party has a young, charismatic new leader, one who has taken a hard line against Catalan separatism. His position on the EU is unclear.
- Inflation is creeping upward in India. It has risen for eight consecutive months and has now exceeded 5 percent – not the end of the world but something to keep an eye on.
- More than 3,000 Russian soldiers are engaging in a military exercise at a Russian military base in Armenia. On Sunday, Armenia’s defense minister said that elements of previous Armenian-Russian agreements may need to be reconsidered.
- Macedonia was supposed to be the country that had an easier time passing the name-change agreement with Greece. Political opposition appears to be slowing down the process.
- Peru has declared a state of judicial emergency (the president has reportedly asked Congress to dissolve the National Judiciary Council). Meanwhile, a senior Chinese official was in the country over the weekend to discuss regional cooperation.