30 July 2018

Daily Memo: The Middle East Makes Waves, North Korea Walks Back, the US Talks Trade Truce

Threats to halt the flow of oil through Middle Eastern waterways are starting to feel more like promises. On Thursday, Saudi Arabia suspended oil shipments through part of the Red Sea after Houthi fighters attacked two tankers, one of which, they claim, was a Saudi warship. (The Houthis are Yemeni rebels that have fought, through the support of Iran, the Saudi-aligned government in the capital of Sanaa.) In coded language, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, appeared to confirm the attack, saying the presence of U.S. forces in the Red Sea is what led to the attacks. The same day, the U.S., Egypt and Gulf states began demining exercises in the Red Sea – these kinds of exercises would immediately be put to use in the event of an oil blockade.

The more things change in North Korea, the more things stay the same. On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the government of Kim Jong Un continues to produce fissile material. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The North was never going to give away such a valuable bargaining chip at such an early stage of the diplomatic process. (The U.S. is reportedly still trying to figure out how many uranium enrichment facilities are operating in the North.) Yet Pyongyang is evidently keen to keep the detente alive. This Friday, for example, the North is expected to follow through with a promise to transfer the remains of an unspecified number of soldiers killed in the Korean War to the U.S., according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency. On Tuesday, Pompeo and President Donald Trump appeared to confirm reports that the North had begun to dismantle a key missile engine test site. These are measures of good faith, but they do not amount to concrete steps toward denuclearization – the test site can always be rebuilt, and in any case is likely less important to the program now that North Korea appears to have solid fuel missile engines. Either way, the message in North Korea media is the same: North Korea will not dismantle its nuclear program, which it dubbed the “precious legacy” of Kim’s predecessors.

The U.S. and EU have called a temporary truce in their trade dispute. During a Thursday meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Trump agreed to refrain from imposing tariffs on European cars while talks on lowering industrial tariffs were ongoing. Trump also said the U.S. would try to “resolve” tariffs on European steel and aluminum imposed earlier this year. In exchange, the EU pledged to expand European imports of U.S. liquefied natural gas and soybeans. In essence, the White House is back to pushing for what previous administrations did with Europe, just not under the guise of a comprehensive free trade agreement. The prospects for another round of talks are unclear, but at this point, it makes sense for the U.S. to look to Europe to weaken Beijing’s position in the U.S.-China spat. After all, EU imports of U.S. soybeans would undermine one of China’s most important countermeasures.

China appears to have acknowledged its image problem. The South China Morning Post has reported that President Xi Jinping is preparing to overhaul its propaganda machine with the appointment of loyalists to a handful of key positions, including the head of the State Council Information Office. This is just one of many indications that Beijing thinks its rise to power, and its associated assertiveness, is at least partly to blame for putting itself in the U.S. crosshairs on trade, Taiwan, the South China Sea and other issues. Beijing may not have done itself any favors, and it’s easy to see why it would want to address any Chinese resentment abroad. But its intensifying competition with the U.S. and its allies is overwhelmingly the result of deeper strategic issues. Better propaganda won’t fix much.

Honorable Mentions
Pompeo said the U.S. will never recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Cricket star Imran Khan is set to be Pakistan’s next prime minister.
The U.S. and India are reportedly set to sign a key military communications agreement in September.
A Chinese man outside the U.S. embassy in Beijing set off an explosive device, reportedly just a bundle of fireworks, injuring only himself.
Violent protests led by India’s influential Maratha community broke out in Mumbai.
Islamic State fighters reportedly held “military parades” in Iraq’s Nineveh and Salahuddin provinces.

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