In the meantime, elsewhere in the world

5 min read

There are certain events that are, or at least seem to be, so important that they demand all our attention, leaving us blindsided to other, probably not less important happenings.

In June, for example, in Europe, the European parliamentary elections were the most exciting news, followed by the latest developments in the soap opera of the U.S. presidential elections. Fears about the supposed right-wing shift dominated the media landscape.

While most of those expectations came to fulfilment and results in several European countries showed that voters were not satisfied with the leadership and the current direction of politics, filling the ballot boxes with protest votes – somehow it seems that the lesson was still not learned (think the new proposed leadership for Europe). Anyways, we’ll have a clearer picture after the two rounds of French elections.

Now, that the dust slowly settles, it is maybe time to check what else had happened on the far side of the world.

Both Beijing and Moscow took the opportunity to make a few moves elsewhere on the globe. A stark reminder that many countries in Asia (and Africa) still welcome closer ties with those two “rouge countries”, no matter how much pressure Europe and Washington exert on them.

President Putin not only secured a more extensive military cooperation with North Korea, in a two-day visit (the first after 24 years, when Putin visited Kim Jong Un’s father), but he also dropped by in Vietnam.

There aren’t many details known about the dozen agreements, strengthening the “comprehensive strategic partnership” he signed with his counterpart (including supplying fossil fuels and nuclear cooperation), but it irked Washington, nevertheless. Just last year, the U.S. declared it to be a diplomatic success that Hanoi was ready to strengthen its relationship with Washington.

Though Hanoi’s trade relations with Russia have deteriorated during the last few years (a fact Washington tried to make use of), ties with Moscow run deep and have a long history, just enough to restart: the two countries agreed that they share an interest in “developing a reliable security architecture” in the Asia-Pacific region with no room for “closed military-political blocs”, without actual arms trade. In fact, Hanoi and Moscow both denied that they talked about weapons’ supplies.

Both visits aimed to boost Moscow’s economic ties and to counterbalance Western efforts to isolate Russia. And proved, again, that both Pyongyang and Hanoi are willing to reach out, especially if they are forced to choose a “camp”.

In another interesting development, Thailand and Malaysia have expressed their interest in joining the BRICS. Vietnam is only “closely monitoring the path of entry” and the Philippines are “thoughtful”, but it seems that interest in the BRICS is growing. (Laos and Myanmar had declared their willingness to join last year, while Indonesia’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi indicated in January, that Jakarta was “assessing the possible benefits of joining”.)

The (now) China-led economic bloc was co-founded decades ago by Brazil, Russia, India, and China and now includes other “Global South” nations such as South Africa and Iran. Ironically, Western push for bloc-politics got the organization stronger than ever before.

For Presidents Putin and Xi, the interest in BRICS is a proof of their success at pushing back at American and European attempts to isolate them over the war in Ukraine and China’s military posturing in Asia.

From this point of view, Vietnam has a special role.

Besides the geopolitical reasons (it’s strategic position in South Asia), the country is home to the world’s second-largest reserve of rare earth minerals.

No wonder it was deemed important for the U.S., as well. During his visit last year, President Biden signed a memorandum to “strengthen technical cooperation to support Vietnam’s efforts to quantify its REE resources and economic potential” and “attract quality investment for integrated REE sector development.”

Vietnam’s riches might become even more important starting from October, when a new Chinese legislation comes into force, declaring all rare earth metals the property of the state and introducing new control measures, possibly disrupting global supply chains.

While the US and its allies seek a “supply chain hedge” to China’s domination of the critical minerals, Vietnam is struggling mightily to get them out of the ground and onto global markets. For a wide variety of reasons, it extracted only 1,200 tons of it in 2022, far less than the original estimate of 4,300 tons. The plans to strengthen production were hindered, among others, by corruption scandals around the local mining companies (some Australian partners also involved).

And the countries of BRICS are ready to make their voices heard.

On June 10-11, a BRICS Ministers of Foreign Affairs and a BRICS+ (a dialogue between BRICS members and 12 major developing countries with regional influence, including Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Turkey) meeting was held. The joint statement issued after the meeting is a minor form of the Declaration of Independence, in full awareness of their rising power.

So is the speech given by Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi. He declared, among others that “the problems of economic globalization can only be solved through further development of globalization. Unilateral acts and protectionism harm not only the victims but also the perpetrators…” or that “today, we are once again standing at a crossroads where we must choose between unilateralism and multilateralism, and between lose-lose and win-win. We should learn from history and follow the vision of global governance featuring extensive consultation and joint contribution for shared benefit in international affairs. (…) It is essential to uphold and defend true multilateralism, preserve the U.N.’s central role in the international system, and safeguard international law and the basic norms governing international relations. We need to advocate mutual learning and harmony between civilizations, and encourage and support all countries in following development paths suited to their national conditions”.

Afghanistan is the latest example of why the Chinese model is attractive for developing countries.

A spokesperson for the Afghanistan Ministry of Mines and Oil has just announced that Afghanistan sold $80 million worth of oil within 10 days. 20,000 tons of crude oil that had been extracted from the Amu Darya oil basin have been sold for 10 million U.S. dollars through a bidding process.

In spite of years of American nation building (and before that years of futile Soviet and British experiments), it was Chinese investments that made Afghanistan into an oil exporter.

Less than a year ago, China’s Xinjiang Central Asia Oil and Gas Company (CAPEIC) signed a 25-year contract with the Afghan government to invest in Afghan oil resources. It was the first major public commodities extraction deal the Taliban administration has signed with a foreign company since taking power in 2021. And it has already turned into a success.

Bloomberg reported that China’s Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Co. had tripled its crude oil production in Afghanistan. According to the Taliban, the drilling of new wells will generate approximately USD 500 million in annual revenue for Afghanistan.

Chinese investments come with far less sticks attached than any help ever offered by the West.

Still in June, another development brought another blow to Europe.

Niger has already demanded the withdrawal of French military personnel, but now, the country’s now military government has revoked the operating license of French nuclear fuel producer Orano at one of the world’s biggest uranium mines. This means that three mines and all licences were cancelled.

In the early 2000’s, Paris spent a lot of effort to diversify its suppliers, thus even after the cessation of mining on French soil, France had five uranium suppliers: Kazakhstan with 2,659 tons, Niger with 1,440 , Namibia with 1,126, Australia with 988 and Uzbekistan with 918 tons.

Now, with losing almost one-fifth of its supplies, France will have to search for alternatives if it wants to operate its fifty-six nuclear reactors in its eighteen power plants (for which EDF requires an average amount of 8,000 tons of uranium yearly). Unluckily for Paris, the list of possible supplements is short (and most are linked to Moscow this way or another).

All in all, the West did not fare well on the theoretical scoreboard of diplomacy in June. Maybe after the U.S. elections are over and all the well-paid jobs in Brussels got distributed, the countries on this side of the globe might be able to pay a little more attention to the rest, as well, beyond their own limited self-interests.

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