Dec 3, 2019

Axios World

Welcome back to Axios World. Tonight's global tour is 1,603 words (6 minutes).

  • We're back to normal programming this evening. Part II of the Putin special report lands in your inboxes on Thursday — thanks for all the feedback on Part I!
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1 big thing: Trump's chaotic world

Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images, Chesnot/Getty Images, Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto via Getty Image, Jasper Juinen/Getty Images, and Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

President Trump began the day by announcing unexpected tariffs, via tweet, on Brazil and Argentina. He'll end it in London, where fellow NATO leaders fear he could jolt the alliance once again over the next two days.

The big picture: Trump’s chaotic approach to foreign policy — tweets, threats, tariffs — leaves much of the world wary of news from Washington.

Driving the news: This week’s NATO gathering is designed as a chance for leaders to mark the alliance’s 70th birthday, with an abbreviated schedule to minimize the risk of flare-ups.

  • "All I'm hearing is great anxiety about what Trump might do or say," Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, told Axios' Jonathan Swan.
  • Former national security adviser John Bolton recently remarked that Trump could withdraw the U.S. from NATO entirely if re-elected, according to NBC.
  • But it was French President Emmanuel Macron who drew headlines for questioning whether NATO was fit for purpose — with the U.S. pulling back and Turkey going rogue — in an interview with the Economist.
  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan responded with furious accusations of his own, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel scolded Macron for his characterization of NATO as brain dead.

Behind the scenes: Trump was also irked by Macron’s interview, Swan reports. "He's been down on Macron for a long while," one official told Swan, who reports that Trump has privately described Macron as a “wise guy.” Their "bromance" appears to be over.

What to watch: Trump’s relations with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson are far warmer, but will also be tested this week.

  • With elections looming on Dec. 12 and opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn capitalizing on Trump’s past remarks and unpopularity in the U.K., Johnson will have to walk a perilous line between alienating Trump and appearing too close to him.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, meanwhile, has embraced Trump with both arms, but he was caught off guard by today's sanctions announcement.

  • Trump accused Brazil and Argentina of "massive devaluation of their currencies," though the slides are due to economic travails rather than government action.
  • Between the lines: There are domestic political considerations at play: Brazilian farmers are now supplying the bulk of China's soybeans as Trump's trade war hits U.S. farmers.

Zoom out: The dance practiced by the likes of Johnson and Bolsonaro — keeping Trump onside while bracing for his next remark — is all the more challenging for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

  • In a rare interview with TIME and three European outlets, Zelensky lamented Trump’s constant characterizations of Ukraine as corrupt — lobbed in the heat of an impeachment battle — as the “hardest of signals” to countries and companies from which Ukraine needs investment.
  • Zelensky also criticized Trump’s decision to withhold critical military aid. “If you’re our strategic partner, then you can’t go blocking anything for us. I think that’s just about fairness," he said.

The bottom line: Trump's partner one day can always become his target the next.

Go deeper: Bipartisan senators call for sanctions against Turkey before NATO summit

2. China and Russia: Pipelines and partnerships

Putin gets some FaceTime with Xi. Photo: Noel Celis - Pool/Getty Images

An 1,800-mile-long symbol of one of the world's most important geopolitical partnerships began delivering Russian gas to China today, the countries’ presidents announced.

By the numbers: The Power of Siberia pipeline is expected to “generate $400 billion for Russian state coffers” over three decades, per Reuters:

  • “The move cements China’s spot as Russia’s top export market and gives Russia a potentially enormous new market outside Europe. It also comes as Moscow is hoping to launch two other major energy projects — the Nord Steam 2 undersea Baltic gas pipeline to Germany and the TurkStream pipeline to Turkey and southern Europe.”
  • Vladimir Putin hailed it as “a genuinely historical event” on a video link with Xi Jinping, who emphasized the deepening ties between the countries.

My thought bubble: The pipeline could also be seen as a physical manifestation of Putin’s China strategy. He is squeezing everything he can out of a relationship that currently provides massive economic and strategic benefits, while putting off the question of what the increasingly unequal relationship across one of the world’s longest borders means for Russia.

  • We'll have much more on Putin's China play on Thursday in Part II of our special report.

Go deeper: Putin signs law making Russian software mandatory on consumer electronics

Bonus: A tale of two headlines

1. China suspends U.S. military visits to Hong Kong

2. In face of China threat, Taiwan to invite U.S. experts to bolster defenses

Both this morning, from Reuters

3. Global news roundup: Critics have their say

Protestors hold pictures of Daphne Caruana Galizia outside Muscat's office in Valletta, Malta. Photo: AFP via Getty

1. Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat announced Sunday that he would resign next month in the wake of a crisis triggered by an investigation into the 2017 death of Daphne Caruana Galizia, a prominent anti-corruption journalist, Axios' Zach Basu writes.

  • The backdrop: Prosecutors on Saturday charged well-connected businessman Yorgen Fenech on suspicion that he paid contract killers to murder Caruana Galizia, a fierce critic of Muscat and his associates, according to the New York Times. Fenech had offered to give information linking Muscat's chief of staff and others to the murder plot in exchange for immunity, but the government turned down the offer.
  • The big picture: The fallout from the 2017 murder has shone a light on corruption in the European Union's smallest country, denounced by Caruana Galizia's son as a "mafia state," per the Times.

2. One of the rappers behind the song "Long Live the People," a smash hit in Morocco that breaks a taboo against insulting the king, has been sentenced to a year in prison, per the FT.

  • "Angry, irreverent and pulsating with visceral emotion, 'Long Live the People,' has clocked up some 16.5 million views on YouTube and defiant young football fans now chant it in stadiums."
  • "The song’s popularity, activists and analysts said, attests to a rising tide of discontent fueled by political and economic grievances."

3. Sudan's transitional government has repealed a law that allowed women to be fined or flogged for "dancing, wearing trousers, vending on the streets or mixing with men who weren’t their relatives," per the Washington Post.

4. Middle East: What to watch in Iran and Iraq

Protesters in Isfahan, Iran, Nov. 16. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

In Iran, more than 200 protesters have been killed in two weeks of widespread demonstrations following a decision to raise gas prices.

The big picture: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali "Khamenei and the rest of the regime have long pointed a finger abroad when under strain at home," Behnam Ben Taleblu writes for Axios Expert Voices. "But they're now facing greater pressure and responding with firmer tactics, including the use of lethal force under the cover of an internet blackout."

  • "By gradually restoring the internet, the regime has expressed confidence that its campaign of intimidation, mass arrests and promised revenge will deter future demonstrations."
  • "If current trends hold, however, the Iranian authorities could soon find themselves falling back on those measures."

In Iraq, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi submitted his resignation Saturday after two months of protests over corruption and poor government services that have seen more than 350 killed.

  • It's unclear who will replace Mahdi, who will stay on in a caretaker capacity.
  • "The process of choosing a new prime minister and forming a government previously has taken months, with political leaders hashing out backroom deals and the U.S. and Iran maneuvering to secure their interests," per WSJ.
  • But, but, but: The streets are impatient, and a decision will likely have to be made far more quickly.
5. Interview: Kingmakers from Catalonia

A pro-independence rally in Barcelona. Photo: Lluis Gene/AFP via Getty Images

The question of Catalan independence dominated Spain's election last month, which was held soon after separatist leaders were given long jail terms for holding an unsanctioned independence referendum.

  • Now, Catalonia's separatist parties could become kingmakers.

State of play: Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is forming a government that includes his center-left Socialists and the left-wing Podemos party. The two parties are short of a majority, so they need the blessing of smaller parties, including the separatists.

What they're saying: Alfred Bosch, the pro-independence foreign minister for Catalonia's regional government, tells Axios there's now "a window of opportunity" for negotiations on "the Catalan problem."

  • "Sánchez played a gamble and he lost. He decided to go for elections, he was expecting to gain more strength, he was weakened by the elections."
  • Bosch says Sanchez "lost options" due to the result. He had been refusing to hold talks for months. Now, "he has to do everything he said he was simply refusing to do before the elections."

The big picture: Podemos has expressed openness to an independence referendum. Sánchez has not. Bosch says the separatists will reject the new government without a promise of dialogue aimed at reaching a "democratic solution."

"We're not in the world to keep Sanchez in power."
— Alfred Bosch

Between the lines: I asked Bosch how he defines a "democratic solution," and he replied by asking for my definition.

  • "When I think of democracy I think of voting," I said.
  • "So do I," he replied. "Let's see what the Spanish government thinks."
6. What I'm reading: The Modi-fication of India

Modi at a rally in Mumbai. Photo: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP via Getty Images

Dexter Filkins goes deep in this week's New Yorker on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s success in suppressing criticism as he has made Hindu nationalism the dominant force in Indian politics.

The big picture: Filkins examines Modi's past — the "puritanical" youth recruited to the Hindu nationalist movement, the state official banned from the U.S. for allegedly standing by (or worse) during weeks of deadly rioting, and the rising star who "signaled to his followers that he shared their bigotry" in speeches and reaped political benefits.

  • He also travels to Kashmir and contrasts the crackdown on the ground with the placid picture painted in Indian media outlets.

Key excerpts:

  • "Ever since Modi was first elected Prime Minister, in 2014, he has been recasting the story of India, from that of a secular democracy accommodating a uniquely diverse population to that of a Hindu nation that dominates its minorities, especially the country’s 200 million Muslims."
  • "B.J.P. leaders have been rewriting school textbooks across the country, erasing much of its Islamic history. ... The B.J.P. has changed Mughal place names to ones that are Hindu-influenced."
  • "Modi and his allies have squeezed, bullied, and smothered the press into endorsing what they call the 'New India.'"
  • "The lack of journalistic scrutiny has given Modi immense freedom to control the narrative. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the months leading up to his reelection, in 2019."
  • "Amit Shah, Modi’s deputy, told a group of election workers that the Party’s social-media networks were an unstoppable force. ... 'We are capable of delivering any message we want to the public — whether sweet or sour, true or fake.'"

Read the piece.

7. Stories we're watching

Building a temporary bridge across the Ganges for the Hindu festival of Magh Mela in Allahabad, India. Photo: Anjay Kanojia/AFP via Getty Images

  1. At least 19 dead in Mexico cartel-police shootout
  2. Trump delights Hong Kong; Thousands march to consulate
  3. China trade war hits Dollar Tree and John Deere
  4. Apple to show Crimea as Russian territory
  5. Trump's cease-fire curveball in Taliban peace talks
  6. Tourism spike to Antarctica could accelerate warming
  7. Dry conditions in Latin America driving up coffee prices.


"First of all, have your own brain death checked. These statements are suitable only to people like you who are in a state of brain death."
Erdoğan on Macron, whom he also called a "novice" who likes to "show off."