China x India in paradise — Who x Who in Syria — Goodwill x Reality in Korea

Hi there,

In this Tuesday’s Signal, we’ll see a big geopolitical rivalry in a tiny place, parse the perilous geopolitics of post-ISIS Syria, burst an Olympic goodwill bubble on North Korea, and tell you where all those Valentine’s Day roses come from.

Send us your love/hate, give a friend the Signal here, and tune in to CBSN at 9:15am this morning, where I’ll be live to discuss any/all of what you’re about to read.

-Alex Kliment (@saosasha)

THE BIGGEST RIVALRY YOU’RE NOT HEARING ABOUT

Sometimes the biggest global stories play out in the smallest places. Last week a political crisis in the Maldives, a tiny, idyllic island nation in the Indian Ocean, gave us a glimpse of broader geopolitical tensions between two giants: India and China.

Narrowly, the current turmoil in the Maldives has to do with a bitter rivalry between the head-cracking current president, Abdallah Yameen, and exiled former president, Mohamed Nasheed, who leads the opposition.

But things took on a global dimension fast when Nasheed called on India to send in troops to restore order and roll back Chinese influence on the islands.

The broader story is that while the Maldives have historically been close to India, President Yameen has tilted the country towards China economically since taking office in 2013, courting infrastructure investment, tourism flows, and signing a free trade dealwith Beijing.

As you can imagine, the Indians don’t like that, particularly since China is also spending billions on Indian Ocean ports and related infrastructure in neighboring Pakistan (an adversary), Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal (all friends).

From China’s perspective it’s a no-brainer — some two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments cross the Indian Ocean, and those waterways are a critical part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. But for India it’s a direct challenge to what New Delhi sees as its own historic sphere of influence.

The Indians and Chinese won’t get into a real tussle over the Maldives, the islands are too small fry for that. But relations between the two Asian giants are already touchy. They still can’t agree on a border more than 50 years after fighting a war over the issue, and they nearly came to blows last summer over a remote mountain road.

Last week’s episode is a reminder that as China seeks greater commercial and strategic influence in Asia in the coming years, frictions between the world’s two most populous nations — one a democracy, the other an autocracy — are set to grow.

GRAPHIC TRUTH: CHINA’S INDIAN OCEAN?

As China increases its influence in India’s traditional sphere of influence, commerce is Beijing’s leading edge. Here’s a snapshot of how trade relations look at the moment.

GLOBAL POWER: HOW AMERICA DID IT VS HOW CHINA’S DOING IT

After World War Two, the US used its global constellation of naval bases to expand economic and cultural power across the world. Today, China may be flipping that order on its head: establishing a global commercial and infrastructure presence that may, over time, naturally require a security component. After all, who’s going to defend trillions of dollars’ worth of Chinese rails and ports?

Remember, trade-dependent China has benefited hugely from the global naval security provided by the United States Navy. But with a US president who is tired of free riders, and a Chinese president who seeks real superpower status, it’s high stakes on the high seas in the years ahead.

AN OLYMPIC LETDOWN AWAITS US ON KOREA

Lots of swooning coverage of the Olympics this week. A heartwarming story of how humanity’s shared love of sport can transcend geopolitical differences on the Korean peninsula, and so on. Call me a curmudgeon (I’ve been called worse), but I’m not buying it.

Even if there is some warming of North-South ties, it’s hard to see how that will loosen the basic, intractable deadlock over North Korea’s nuclear program.

To review, Kim Jong-un’s primary motivation for having nuclear weapons, as best we can tell (and we could be wrong, but do tell us why) is to deter the US from ever attempting “regime change” in the North. Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi haunt Kim’s dreams, if he has dreams.

That won’t have changed after the Games. In fact, none of the following will have changed:

  • Kim will still want a nuclear-tipped ICBM that can hit Washington, and is racing like hell to get one he can test.
  • The US will still be sworn to stop him, but tighter sanctions still won’t be enough to make Kim cry uncle (he kills uncles, actually).
  • An increasingly exasperated China still won’t fully choke Kim out, because doing so might cause his regime to collapse, inviting chaos on the peninsula.
  • And as Willis told you, the option of a US limited military strike against the North is probably a horrible idea.

Gold medal for anyone who can tell us how this ends other than: Kim gets his bomb, and the world learns, uneasily, to live with it — but how long can North Korea last after that?

GZERO WORLD WITH IAN BREMMER: WHAT TRUMP SHOULD DEFINITELY NOT TWEET ABOUT KIM JONG-UN’S MOTHER

From our most recent episode of GZERO World, Korea expert Sue Mi Terry takes on a surprisingly difficult question: what do we really know about Kim Jong-un?

ENEMY’S ENEMY’S FRIEND’S ENEMY: POST-ISIS SYRIA

Over the past three weeks, the war in Syria has taken a(nother) turn for the worse. Israel, Russia, and Turkey have all lost aircraft there. US-led forces have clashed directly with Russian-backed pro-regime militia fighters, Assad’s air force is ferociously pounding rebels, jihadists, and civilians in Idlib province, and Turkish troops are advancing against US-backed Kurdish militants along the northern border.

Why now? The kaleidoscope of interests in Syria is shifting again, in part because ISIS — the one constant enemy of everyone’s friend’s enemy’s friend — has been largely defeated, at least militarily.

But with ISIS out of the picture and the Assad regime’s survival now all but assured, the various players and proxies are pressing to maximize their leverage ahead of any peace settlement. In brief, who wants what?

Assad: reclaim as much territory from rebels and jihadists as possible ahead of peace talks that will doubtless confirm him as the leader of post-war Syria. For now this means bombing Idlib, one of the last strongholds of the insurgency and Al Qaeda-affiliated militants.

Turkey: prevent US-backed Kurdish militants from translating their military success against ISIS into external support for an autonomous Kurdish statelet in Northern Syria.

Russia: broker a settlement that makes Putin look like a wise and indispensable statesman on the global stage, while also securing Syria as a lily-pad for projecting Russian military power into the region.

Iran: secure Syria as a client state that acts both as a permanent land corridor linking Iran with its proxies in Lebanon and opens another proxy front line with long-time adversary Israel.

Israel: prevent Iran from doing just that — the downed Israeli jet was returning from a mission to bomb targets in Syria after Israel spotted what it said was an Iranian drone crossing into Israeli airspace.

Syrian Kurds: history hasn’t been kind to the hardy Kurds, but they’ll give it a go again: they want to translate their military success into political autonomy… this time inside Syria.

The United States: unclear — Trump has framed the United States’ relatively limited involvement primarily in counter-terrorism terms, leaving uncertainty about what, precisely, the US wants out of any political settlement. Washington’s initial “Assad must go” position is obviously a non-starter now.

WORLD LEADERS ON ICE

I’ll confess (at the risk of being called something even worse than whatever was worse than curmudgeon) that I’m not hugely into the Winter Olympics, though I was mesmerized by Alberto “La Bomba” Tomba as a child — his outfits were nuts, particularly the Fila ones. But because I’m a nerd, an Olympics that I’d definitely watch is one in which world leaders represent the events, as follows:

The slalom skier: South Korean President Moon Jae-in — just you imagine trying to navigate a path that keeps Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump, and Xi Jinping happy, while also trying to pull off an ambitious economic reform agenda that involves wresting power away from powerful industrial conglomerates who have dominated your country for decades.

The figure skater: Emmanuel Macron. Doesn’t lack for theatrical inspiration but needs a mind boggling combination of power and grace to pull off the triple-Lutz of an EU reform package that is actually viable.

The ski jumper: Kim Jong-un. A loner with a nutty streak. Kim is trying to fly as far and fast as he can with his nuclear program… can he stick the landing?

The luge: Surely, it’s Nicolas Maduro — how does he manage to stay in control while hurtling downward so fast like that?

Which, of course, leaves one last question: who would represent curling? My fellow Signalista Willis Sparks goes for the win with “Donald Trump: everyone is watching him intently but no one really knows what he’s doing.”

Can you, dear reader, beat that?

EL ÉXODO: VENEZUELAN REFUGEES IN COLOMBIA

I just spent a few days down in Colombia, where the tide of refugees fleeing the political and humanitarian crisis next door in Venezuela has reached near-crisis proportions, with as many as 2 million legal and illegal arrivals now in the country.

Add that to some 7 million Colombians displaced internally by the recently-ended conflict with FARC guerrillas, and the challenge of absorbing the Venezuelan “exodus” is shaping up to be a major political issue as the country heads for presidential elections this spring.

HARD NUMBERS

200,000,000: Americans give each other around 200 million roses on Valentine’s Day, a majority of which are grown just outside the Colombian capital Bogota. Q’hubo mi amor… Feliz Valentine’s Day!

50: Since a landmark Chinese funded rail line linking landlocked Ethiopia to the port of Djibouti opened last month, more than 50 animals have been killed along the line. Fifteen camels were killed in a single incident. Chinese capital isn’t welcomed by everyone — desert quadrupeds, and their owners, are among the least enthused.

33: As of this year, Venezuela’s economy will have shrunk by 33 percent since President Nicolas Maduro took power in 2013. Part of that is lower oil prices, but most of it is awful economic policy. If, and how, Venezuela’s horrific humanitarian and political crises end is the most acute transnational issue for South America this year.

3.6: Traffic jams in Cairo cost Egypt’s economy more than 3.6% of GDP every year. Cairo is particularly bad, but across the developing world, rising wealth and rapid urbanization are outstripping cities’ infrastructure. That’s not only a daily headache and a national economic drag — lousy transport can also become a political issue fast, as Brazil learned in 2013.

3: In the past week, aircraft from three foreign countries — Israel, Turkey, and Russia — have been brought down as a result of the conflict in Syria. With ISIS largely defeated, things are heating up as the major parties to the conflict try to maximize their leverage ahead of any peace settlement.

Closing pun: New slogan for Russia 2018 Olympic Squad — all meddling, no medaling.

This edition of Signal was prepared with editorial support from Kevin Allison (@KevinAllison), Gabe Lipton (@gflipton), and Leon Levy (@leonmlevy). Spiritual counsel from Willis Sparks. Give a friend the Signal here.

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