China attempts to break up the relationship between Taiwan and Tuvalu

The island country of Tuvalu

Back in November 2019, it was reported that Chinese companies had made an offer to the small South Pacific island state of Tuvalu to build artificial islands in order to protect against rising sea waters. The offer is believed to been made at Beijing’s direction. Afraid of China rising influence int he region, and possible debt traps that could have resulted in China taking control of the artificial islands, Tuvalu rejected the offer.

China is of course well experienced in large scale island building after its efforts over the past decade on several disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea. Apparently, the offer to build the artificial islands would have beeb worth $400 million.

Flooding in Tuvalu

The overtures from China came two months after Tuvalu selected a new prime minister, Kausea Natano, whose position on China and Taiwan had not been known. Beijing apparently thought they had an opening, as the previous prime minister, Enele Sopoaga, is firmly pro-Taiwan.

Tuvalu is one of only 15 states that formally recognize Taiwan. The full list: Tuvalu, Marshall Islands, Palau, Nauru, Belize, Guatemala, Haiti, Vatican City, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, St Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Swaziland. None of these states have formal relations with Beijing.

The offer by China had come amidst a general push to ingratiate itself with several South Pacific states in an effort to peel them away from Taiwan’s camp and into theirs. The push had been succeeding – Kiribati and Solomon Islands switched their diplomatic recognition to China in September. Taiwan attempted to counter Chinese competition in the South Pacific – Solomon Islands politicians alleged in December that both China and Taiwan offered large sums of money to their state.

But Natano’s foreign minister Simon Kofe however verified that the Natano Cabinet still supported Taiwan. Kofe stated, “We are hearing a lot of information about debt, China buying our islands and looking at setting up military bases in our part of the world. Those are things that are concerning to us.”

In fact, Tuvalu is going so far as to try to set up a group of fellow South Pacific island-states, along with Marshall Islands, Palau, and Nauru, that will together reject further Chinese inroads in favor of continued support for Taiwan and the United States.

Two North Korean defectors elected to the South Korean parliament

Two defectors from North Korea, one of them formerly a high ranking diplomat for the North, were elected on Wednesday, April 15 to South Korea’s unicameral legislative body, the National Assembly.

Thae Yong Ho reacts to his victory

Former deputy head of the North Korean embassy in London, Thae Yong Ho defected from the North with his family in 2016. He is the highest-ranking diplomat to have defected from the North. He will now represent the wealthy Gangnam District in Seoul as a member of the United Future Party, the conservative opposition party.

The other former defector, Ji Seong Ho, is an activist for the disabled and for other defectors who was chosen by the United Future Party for a proportional representation seat in the National Assembly. He defected in 2006 by sneaking into China first, and then making his way to South Korea with the aid of religious groups that help defectors. He became disabled after losing his legs and hand while falling off of a train while stealing coal during the mid-1990s famine in North Korea.

An animated Donald Trump re-enacts Ji Seong Ho’s story for the press.

Needless to say, both defectors are highly critical of the North Korean regime. Their newly high profile might make them a target for Kim Jong Un, who has been known to have people assassinated every now and then.

But they are also critical of liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s efforts to better ties between the two Koreas. Aside from these two bright spots for the United Future Party in the election, President Moon enjoyed a huge landslide victory in Wednesday’s election.

Readers might be interested in Seoul Train, a 2004 documentary that highlights South Korean religious groups’ efforts to help bring North Korean defectors to the South through China. Here’s the trailer.

French Enclaves in Israel

Macron at the entrance to the Church of St. Anne, January 2020

During a visit to Jerusalem in late January 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron had a small dispute with his Israeli security escorts over their attempt to enter a certain Church of St. Anne. It turns out that France claims the church in question as French territory (Domaine national), in addition to three other religious sites in Israel.

France has claimed the four sites since 1856, when the Ottoman Empire’s Sultan Abdulmecid I presented the churches to Napoleon III to thank him for siding with the Ottomans against Russia in the just-concluded Crimean War.

The Church of St. Anne, Jersualem

France then sought to maintain its claims to the sites with the new Israeli state by negotiating the Fischer-Chauvel Agreement (1948). The treaty however was never ratified by Israel, which leads to the current ambiguous sovereignty over the sites. The new Israeli government did not oppose the agreement in 1948 to ensure French recognition, but did not ratify it afterward. Israel begrudgingly lets the French claim persist today.

As for the French government, they feel the need to periodically restate their claims to the sites by pulling the same act that Macron did in January. He took his entourage to the entrance of the Church of St. Anne, then publicly berated and argued with his Israeli security escorts, arguing that they could not enter French territory. One of his predecessors, Jacques Chirac, did the exact same thing in 1996.

Football During Wartime

Michael Caine and Sly Stallone in Escape to Victory (1981)

Since there is no football going on due to the Coronavirus, I thought I would repost one of our entries from the old Weird IR site about football during unusual circumstances.

When I was young, I remember watching a movie called Escape to Victory in which Rocky, Pelé, and Michael Caine played a football match against the Nazis. Yes, the description sounds great, and the whole thing ended with a Great Escape-style breakout. 

Like other war movies, this one bastardized a true story, made all the characters American or English, and had a happy ending. The story Escape to Victory was based on would have made for a better movie. In 1942, after the Nazis invaded and occupied Ukraine, players from the disbanded teams FC Dynamo Kiev and Lokomotiv Kiev were noticed playing on the weekends by German soldiers and were invited to play a series of matches against teams of German and Hungarian soldiers. The Ukrainians destroyed their opponents in every match, embarrassing the Germans enough that the Gestapo rounded up several of their players and sent them to labor camps, where several were put to death. The Soviets tweaked the story to make it more dramatic, portraying a climatic “Death Match” in which all of the Ukrainian players were immediately arrested following a match and soon after executed.

One famous football during wartime story that is used to illustrate the possibilities of international cooperation is that of the WW I Christmas Truce of 1914. As the story goes, British and German troops, facing each other in trenches with little action since the early fall, started singing Christmas carols to each other as the holiday approached. And then on Christmas Day, soldiers came out of their trenches, supposedly at various points along the long front, and engaged in gift-giving and impromptu football matches. 

Below is a historical re-enactment of the Christmas Truce football match, courtesy of British comics Hale & Pace.

This last story doesn’t take place during wartime, but in North Korea, which is still technically at war with South Korea, so I guess it counts. During the last World Cup in South Africa, the late Great Leader Kim Jong Il famously became so incensed at his team’s poor performance in the tournament that he subjected the team upon their return to a public shaming. The coach received worse – he was expelled from the sport and sent to work on a building development.

Spasiba for the memories, Soviet spy-bear

Have you heard the Cold War story of the night a suspected Soviet saboteur tried to climb the fence at a military base in Duluth, Minnesota? The event occurred on October 25, 1962, during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The sentry who noticed the dark figure on the fence shot at it and then raised the alarm. Warning alarms were similarly raised at airfields throughout the region. At an airfield in Wisconsin however, the wrong alert war raised. The base was mistakenly alerted that a nuclear attack had started, so air crews rushed to get their nuclear-armed planes on to the tarmac. Luckily, the airfield’s commander called the Duluth commander for verification and was told the suspected Soviet saboteur was just a bear.  He quickly sent out an officer onto the tarmac to stop the planes from taking off.

In a separate event two days later, on the penultimate day of the missile crisis, radar operators in New Jersey picked up what they thought was a missile launch from Cuba, leading them to warn other military commands that a nuclear attack appeared to have begun. Afterward, the radar operators discovered a software test tape had been inserted into their systems, simulating an attack emanating from Cuba, while at the same time an orbiting satellite came over the horizon, leading the radar operators to think that actual missiles were being launched from Cuba! 

I love historical anecdotes. After all, what could be more amusing than the stories of how close the world came to nuclear destruction not once but twice…during the already tense Cuban Missile Crisis (as if we weren’t already close enough during that 13-day period). There is a nihilistic joy in reading Scott Sagan’s The Limits of Safety (Princeton UP, 1993), the book from which I found these stories of technical mishaps involving nuclear weapons. Or maybe it’s just relief that technology has improved. The book came out twenty years ago, a leftover Cold War project, but it’s still good read for those of you who like weird IR. If you find this book, make sure to read about all the nuclear-armed B-52s that have crashed over the years.

The 1954 Castle Bravo Nuclear Test at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands

Every now and then, we come upon an incident from the past that has been obscured by the march of time. The American government’s 1954 Castle Bravo nuclear test, in which approximately 1200 Marshall Islanders and 23 Japanese fishermen were contaminated with the fallout from a U.S nuclear bomb test at Bikini Atoll, is not necessarily “weird”, but it is worth remembering for the impact it had on the burgeoning anti-nuclear movement.

The Daigo Fukuryu Maru, which was hit by fallout from the nuclear blast, at its Exhibition Hall near Tokyo Harbor

In March 1954, the U.S. began a series of high-yield thermonuclear tests code-named Operation Castle at Bikini Atoll, part of the U.S.-administered Marshall Islands in the western Pacific Ocean. The tests were held to test the new 2nd generation of nuclear weapons; the first test, designated Castle Bravo, took place on March 1. The scientists running the tests had predicted that the Castle Bravo explosion would be approximately equivalent to 6 megatons of TNT. They were way off the mark, as the device detonated with 15 megatons of force.

A danger zone had been announced prior to the test. It was predicted that the blast would not affect nearby inhabited islands of the Marshall Islands group. Moreover, ships were warned to stay out of the danger zone. The larger than expected yield of the explosion meant that the recommended danger zone around the explosion was too small.

The fallout from the greater then predicted blast fell on islanders on the Rongelap and Utirik atolls of the Marshall Islands group and on a Japanese fishing boat, the Daigo Fukuryū Maru. The fallout material consisted of irradiated, pulverized coral reef. The wind and sea currents spread the radiation around the Pacific Ocean and the rest of the world.

The Marshall Islanders were not evacuated for three days later and many suffered radiation sickness. Nearly 1200 claims were filed with U.S. authorities for radiation sickness and related illnesses. Payouts to claimants started in 1956; by 1995 over $43 million had been paid out.

The Daigo Fukuryū Maru had been catching fish 14 miles outside the 57,000 danger zone but the fallout fell on the ship for three hours. The fishermen took time to retrieve their fishing gear from the sea so that they could sail away, exposing themselves to radioactive fallout for several hours.

The burned scalp of a crewmember of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru

The Daigo Fukuryū Maru’s crew were taken to Tokyo for hospitalization for symptoms of acute radiation syndrome, including burns, nausea, headaches, bleeding from the gums, among others. The only death of the crew occurred on September 23, when Aikichi Kuboyama, 40, died at his hospital.

The U.S. government, led by the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss, stonewalled the multiple requests from Japanese medical staff for information about the cause of the radiation illness. The U.S. government eventually a paltry compensation of roughly $5,000 to the fishery, the crewmembers, and Kuboyama’s widow.

Daniel Aldrich notes that, due to fears that the radiation could also contaminate fish that would end up at Japanese restaurants and supermarkets, the incident gave birth to the anti-nuclear movement in Japan. It’s interesting that such a social movement did not arise from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but rather the general fear and uncertainty that Japanese seafood could be radiated.

More Stories about Spy Animals

Back on our old Weird IR blog, we had a story about Egyptian villagers imprisoning and then beating to death a crane, simply because the poor bird had a tracking device attached to it that the villagers mistook for spying equipment. Now it turns out that maybe the villagers weren’t too far off in their suspicions.

Back in September, the CIA declassified docs that reveal spy programs from the 1960s-70s involving pigeons, ravens, cats, dogs, and dolphins. The programs utilizing dolphins (codenamed Projects Oxygas and Chirilogy) have long been written about, but the programs involving cats, dogs, and birds were perhaps lesser known until now.

A pic taken from the CIA museum

Pigeons have been used for a long time to relay messages during wartime, particularly in World War I (the pic was taken from the late stages of that war), but the CIA project codenamed Tacana involved training pigeons to be used as spy birds by attaching tiny cameras to pigeons and sneaking them into the Soviet Union in order to photograph military installations.

A carrier pigeon being released from a British tank during the Battle of Amiens, France, 1918 (Wikimedia Commons)

Another program named Axiolite used ravens and birds of prey, including red-tailed and Harris’s hawks, great horned owls, and a vulture, for similar purposes. While some would take part in photo missions, others were trained to drop surveillance devices on window sills. Migratory birds were considered as well for long-range recon missions – essentially slow aviary equivalents of the famed Cold War-era SR-71 Blackbird (which is still one of the coolest planes ever built).

The SR-71 Blackbird – an expensive but more reliable spy bird

The bird project had mixed results in the training stage and were probably never put in to effect. One of the biggest problems with the spy bird program was that the birds, were too unfamiliar with locations where they were trained – several succumbed to attacks by other birds of prey or lost their equipment.

In projects named Kechel and Acoustic Kitty, cats and dogs were to be fitted with audio surveillance devices, and trained to be guided to their target and back, possibly with the use of electric implants in their brains. Less is known about this project, since some documents on Kechel remain classified.

CIA reportedly pulled a spy out of Russia in 2017 because it feared Trump would tell the Russians

NBC and CNN reported September 10, 2019 that the CIA pulled a long-time spy out of Russia in 2017, after President Trump confided secret intelligence provided by Israel to two Russian officials.

The man was purportedly a high-ranking official in the Russian government who had provided years of information to the US. According to CNN, “According to CNN’s sources, the spy had access to Putin and could even provide images of documents on the Russian leader’s desk.”

In May 2017, in a meeting in the Oval Office with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then-Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak, Trump disclosed intel about ISIS in Syria that had come from Israel.

U.S. President Donald Trump, sharing a light moment with his handlers, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergei Kislyak at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, May 10, 2017. Trump welcomed Vladimir Putin’s top diplomat to the White House for Trump’s highest level face-to-face contact with a Russian government official since he took office in January. (Russian Foreign Ministry Photo via AP)

The intel was not cleared to be shared by the Israelis. Trump had closed that meeting to all but a Russian photographer, so alarm bells apparently started going off at the CIA after that. Worried that Trump might share information about all sorts of matters that the Russians would find useful, the CIA decided to pull out the spy.

Probably, the spy freaked out after reading the story about Trump sharing info and asked for his evacuation.

Now, NBC reports that the man is now living in the DC area under his own name. NBC somewhat comically reported attempting to talk to the man at his residence:

“An NBC News correspondent went to the man’s house in the Washington area and rang the doorbell. Five minutes later, two young men in an SUV came racing up the street and parked immediately adjacent to the correspondent’s car. The men, who identified themselves only as friends of the Russian, asked the correspondent what he was doing there. A former senior national security official said the men were likely U.S. government agents monitoring the Russian’s house.”

It took five mins for the man’s security detail to arrive! Let’s hope the spy doesn’t end up like some of Putin’s other enemies, like that double poisoning in the UK last year.

How does Trump not understand Tit-for-tat in International Trade?

With so many stories these days conjecturing about Trump’s mental well-being (here’s the latest, written by a Republican political strategist), perhaps nothing he says or does should come as a surprise.

This story still astounds though, since it indicates that the President lacks the mental capacity of an adolescent. As we all know, Trump has been engaging in a trade war with China that consists of Trump raising tariffs on Chinese imports into the US, and then China retaliating by raising tariffs on US imports into China. Its been going on for over a year now, since spring 2018. Trump claims he started the trade war because China was unfairly treating the US in its trade relations by maintaining an artificially low yuan exchange rate, being biased against US goods, violating US copyrights and patents, and overall just not importing enough from the US. Fine. This is understood and many his supporters agree with him (even when it hurts their bottom line, as is the case with many US farmers).

Oh, and Trump also incorrectly states that China is paying the tariffs, which is like saying that Mexico was going to pay for his wall. The companies buying the Chinese goods and importing them into the US are the ones who pay the tariffs to US authorities, and they pass these tariffs costs off directly to consumers who buy them in the US.

So anyways, back to the story: The US and China have been trading blows back and forth over the past year and a half, with Trump declaring increases in tariffs every so often, which are always duly reciprocated by Chinese increases in tariffs. This idea of reciprocity is also known as tit-for-tat, and its the basic underlying principle of international relations…actually, all social relations. Whatever action you take against another, they can and will do the same thing back to you. Treat others as you want to be treated, aka the Golden Rule.

So it comes as a surprise that reports tell of Trump becoming angry that China would dare retaliate after his latest announcement of a tariff increase in late August 2019. According to CNBC: “The president was outraged after he learned Aug. 23 that China had formalized plans to slap duties on $75 billion in U.S. products in response to new tariffs from Washington on Sept. 1. His initial reaction, communicated to aides on a White House trade call held that day, was to suggest doubling existing tariffs.” He had to be talked down by Treasury Secretary and financial matters babysitter Steven Mnuchin, who warned him that such an increase in such a short time period could devastate the stock market.

Steven Mnuchin and wife, in happier times. Washington, USA – 15 Nov 2017
Credit: Photo by AP/REX/Shutterstock (9224878a)

How does he not understand that China would reciprocate, even after they’ve reciprocated countless times? Why does anyone think this madness can continue? CNBC also reported that the US manufacturing sector declined for the first time in three years, which along with others signs, is pointing to a possible US recession.

Pence displays U.S. military might in a show of force in….Iceland

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, midway through a European tour that his boss was supposed to take, showed up in Iceland today with a massive show of force. Pence’s Secret Service detail was augmented with snipers on rooftops, helicopters hovering over buildings, bomb-sniffing dogs, the Reykjavik police force, backup police from neighboring towns, and a special Icelandic “Viking SWAT” police force. Oh yeah, and six military planes overflew the country prior to the visit.

All of this for an island of 350,000 people with the 3rd lowest murder rate in the world. Iceland is so peaceful that its President shops and goes to the hot spring baths without a security detail.

Trump said that Pence was “straight out of central casting” after interviewing him for VP