Jul 30, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back to Axios World.

  • Tonight's global tour is 1,742 words (6.5 minutes) and coming to you from Worcester, Massachusetts.
  • I'm handing the keys to my colleague Shane Savitsky on Monday, and I'll be back at it from D.C. for Thursday's edition.
  • New readers can sign up here.
1 big thing: Virus bounces back where it had been knocked out

A glum harbor ride in Hong Kong. Photo: Anthony Wallace. AFP via Getty.

This week has seen a number of worrying headlines from countries initially viewed as major pandemic success stories.

Why it matters: After enormous sacrifices made to prevent or contain widespread outbreaks, countries are grappling with the challenge of preserving that success without daily life, and the economy, grinding to a halt once again.

  • Australia recorded its highest daily death toll, 13, on Thursday. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said a new lockdown in the state of Victoria — which recorded 723 new cases today — wasn't working as well as hoped, and he acknowledged a virus Australia had nearly stamped out will be around "for some time."
  • Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam issued a more dire warning — the city is "on the verge of a large-scale community outbreak" that could cause its hospital system to "collapse." Hong Kong is recording upwards of 100 new cases each day.
  • Vietnam had eliminated community transmission altogether for 99 days, and it has still yet to record a single death, but it's seen 39 new cases over the last three days. The government is tightening border controls and ramping up contact tracing.
  • Japan is recording many more cases now than during its first wave in March and April. The government finds itself in the awkward position of urging caution to limit the spread while promoting domestic travel to boost the economy.

Germany has been a model for the rest of Europe, but the head of the national public health agency now says Germans have become "negligent," causing a rise in cases.

  • Spain and Belgium, which were both hit very hard but turned a corner after imposing strict lockdowns in the spring, are now recording case levels not seen since May.
  • Catalonia is back under curfew, with nearly 7,000 cases recorded there just last week.
  • Belgium has halted its reopening process and imposed new local restrictions in Antwerp. “Our aim is clear — avoid another full lockdown,” Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès said.

Among the factors blamed by leaders and public health experts are the abandonment of social distancing, particularly among younger people, the reopening of bars and the loosening of travel restrictions.

What to watch: We are unlikely to re-enter a period in which most of the world is living under lockdown. Instead, we're seeing stalled reopening plans and targeted lockdowns, as countries hope the worst is behind them but prepare for the possibility it isn't.

Bonus: Trump never raised bounties with Putin

Photo: "Axios on HBO"

President Trump has never confronted Vladimir Putin with intelligence indicating Russia paid the Taliban to kill U.S. troops, he told “Axios on HBO” in an interview on Tuesday. 

Why it matters: Democrats have seized on the issue and Trump's reluctance to discuss it as evidence he’s unwilling to challenge Putin even when American lives are at stake.

  • Trump spoke with Putin on Thursday and subsequently deflected a question about whether he’d raised the alleged bounty scheme.

In Tuesday’s interview with Jonathan Swan, he was definitive:

“I have never discussed it with him.”

Pressed on why he didn’t raise the matter, Trump said it was "a phone call to discuss other things, and, frankly, that’s an issue that many people said was fake news.”

  • Trump has spoken to Putin at least eight times since intelligence about the alleged Russian bounties was reportedly included in the President's Daily Brief — his written intelligence briefing — in late February.
  • Trump’s team says he was not verbally briefed on the matter before a June 26 report from the New York Times brought the controversy out into the open.

Between the lines: There's no clear consensus within the intelligence community about the strength of the evidence that Russia paid the bounties — though that's not the case when it comes to Russia's broader support for the Taliban.

  • In 2018, Gen. John Nicholson, then the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, accused Russia of providing money and arms to the group, saying, "We know that the Russians are involved."
  • Trump told “Axios on HBO” that he was not aware of Nicholson’s comments, and said evidence that Russia was aiding the Taliban “never reached my desk.”
  • The full interview will air Monday night on HBO.

Watch the clip

2. Asia: Epic scandal, unstable politics

Guilty. Photo: Mohd Firdaus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was found guilty on Tuesday of all seven corruption charges in the first of five trials connected to a multibillion-dollar scandal at state investment fund 1MDB.

  • The verdict comes days after Goldman Sachs agreed to a $3.9 billion settlement — including $2.5 billion in cash —  for its role in raising funds for 1MDB when Najib was PM, Axios' Rebecca Falconer writes.

Why it matters: The scandal saw Najib's party, UMNO, ejected from power in 2018 after decades of dominance.

Flashback: That election result was cheered internationally as a chance to reset Malaysia's democracy and root out institutionalized corruption.

  • But Malaysia didn't stay on a reformist course for long. UNMO made a surprise return to government in March as part of a coalition of parties that support the interests of the Malay majority.

Flash forward: This morning, UNMO pulled out of that coalition, which appears increasingly unstable.

  • "UMNO’s decision to withdraw could be seen as retaliation over Najib’s verdict, said Ibrahim Suffian of independent pollster Merdeka Center. While Najib no longer leads the party, he remains highly influential," Asahi Shimbun reports.

Worth noting: Jho Low, the man who brought Najib and Goldman together and allegedly siphoned billions out of the fund while befriending A-list celebrities, is in hiding — possibly in Macao.

3. Global news roundup

Screening for Ebola at the DRC/Rwanda border in 2019. Photo: John Wessels/AFP via Getty Images

1. The U.S. will move 12,000 troops out of Germany, Defense Secretary Mark Esper has announced.

  • That comprises about one-third of America's presence in Germany. 6,400 will head back to the U.S., while 5,400 will move elsewhere in Europe, Axios' Fadel Allassan writes.
  • Esper presented this as a strategic move, but President Trump made his true motive clear: "We’re reducing the force because they’re not paying their bills."
  • The decision has met with bipartisan backlash. Ben Hodges, formerly the top U.S. Army commander in Europe, called it "a gift to the Kremlin."

2. A renewed Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo could be even harder to combat because of the simultaneous challenge from COVID-19.

  • "Few in­ternational agen­cies are will­ing to de­ploy staff to Équa­teur, a prov­ince roughly the size of Ohio that is dif­fi­cult to ac­cess and plagued by eth­nic vi­o­lence from armed groups," the WSJ reports.
  • "The re­gion is bi­sected by the Congo river, which of­fi­cials fear could trans­port the virus down­stream to Kin­shasa, Africa’s sec­ond most pop­u­lous city."

3. Russia today criticized the detention of around 30 people by the government of Belarus, which claims they are Russian mercenaries who intended to plunge the country into chaos ahead of an election on Aug. 9.

  • They stand accused of "the preparation of terrorist acts." Russia says they were just traveling through Belarus.
  • The entire situation remains murky, but it will further strain relations between Putin and President Alexander Lukashenko, who is expected to hold onto power in the elections despite growing discontent with his 26-year reign.
4. What happens inside China's consulates

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Every country spies. And many countries — including the U.S. — use their diplomatic outposts to do it. But for years, China has used its embassies and consulates to do far more than that, Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian reports.

Driving the news: Last week, the U.S. demanded the closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston. In response, the Chinese government ordered the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu closed.

Yes, but: The Houston consulate wasn't China's most important espionage hub.

  • "San Francisco is the real gem, but the U.S. won’t close it," a former U.S. intelligence official told Axios.
  • It indicates the Trump administration is likely making an example of the Houston consulate in a bid to achieve its goal of a reduction in Chinese espionage activities without taking an even harsher measure, such as closing the San Francisco or New York consulates.

The Chinese government has long used its embassy and consulates in the U.S. to exert control over student groups, collect information on Uighurs and Chinese dissident groups, and coordinate local and state-level political influence activities.

  • Surveilling Uighurs: Leaked classified Chinese government documents have revealed that Chinese embassies and consulates are complicit in the ongoing cultural and demographic genocide against Uighurs.
  • Controlling Chinese students: The Chinese Embassy and consulates keep close tabs on Chinese students in the U.S., occasionally sending them political directives and quietly organizing demonstrations.
  • Supporting United Front organizations: Chinese diplomatic officials regularly meet with leaders of U.S.-based organizations tied to the political influence arm of the Chinese Communist Party and preside over the ceremonies and banquets held by these organizations.
Mapped: Embassies and consulates
Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Go deeper: How the consulate closures could impact espionage

5. What we know about Russia's anti-satellite weapon

Photo: NASA

Russia ratcheted up international tensions earlier this month by testing what appears to be a weapon to destroy enemy satellites in space, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

The big picture: This is far from the first time the country has put on a display of force in orbit, Axios' Miriam Kramer reports.

Driving the news: Russia's Cosmos 2543 satellite appeared to release a projectile near another Russian satellite on July 15. It had been flying near a powerful U.S. spy satellite before the test.

  • The test may be part of a Russian program to develop a space-based anti-satellite weapon that could one day be launched from aircraft, the Secure World Foundation's Brian Weeden tells Miriam.
  • However, information is sparse, and it's not clear exactly where this test fits in within Russia's broader capabilities.

The big picture: Space is a warfighting domain. The U.S. military relies on satellite imagery and other data beamed back to Earth by a small group of extremely powerful satellites to make accurate decisions about strategy.

  • That small number of high-powered National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellites can actually be something of a liability for the U.S., making them very high-value targets, Weeden added.
  • What to watch: "China has been developing a lot of these similar capabilities, but they're doing it a different way. So they have satellites that do imagery and signals and stuff, but they've got like 140 of them," Weeden said. "They're not nearly as good as what the NRO has, but they're good enough."
6. What I'm reading: Pour some out

Vines of Alsace. Photo: David Silverman/Getty Images

Next time you apply hand sanitizer, sniff for floral aromas, or perhaps stone fruit notes.

Zoom in: Some Alsatian white wines once intended for tables are now meeting a different fate, Adam Nossiter reports in the NY Times.

  • "The economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus, combined with the Trump administration’s 25 percent tax on French wines ... has collapsed the wine market."
  • "The precocious 2020 harvest, blessed by abundant sunshine, is barely a month away. The wine vats must be emptied for the new production. The distillery, for modest compensation, is the only option."
  • "And so some of the succulent and subtle white wine for which this region is famous, nurtured on the stony, sunbathed Alsace slopes, will wind up as hand sanitizer."
  • "At the distillery, the odor of boiled-down wine, like the essence of a rich beef burgundy sauce, hung heavy over the establishment on a warm morning this week."

Have a taste

7. Stories we're watching

Placing the Kiswa protective cover on the Kaaba in Mecca ahead of this year's very different hajj. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

  1. World coronavirus updates
  2. The end of the beginning of Mars exploration
  3. Brazil lifts travel ban even as cases, deaths surge
  4. Wray warns of Chinese election interference
  5. TikTok's DC charm offensive
  6. Charges against alleged Saudi agents at Twitter
  7. Podcast: Trump never asked Putin about bounties

Quoted:

"I do. I read a lot. They like to say I don't read, I read a lot."
— Trump to "Axios on HBO" on whether he reads his daily intelligence brief. Former aides have said he doesn't read it, preferring in-person briefings. Watch clip.
Dave Lawler