CIA raid on North Korean embassy in Spain?

Story from El Pais, the second most-read daily newspaper in Spain, presented without comment (well, okay, just one comment – WTF?):

Investigators from the Spanish police and National Intelligence Center (CNI) have linked an attack on the North Korean embassy in Madrid on February 22 to the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Sources believe the goal of the attack embassy was to get information on the former North Korean ambassador to Spain

At least two of the 10 assailants who broke into the embassy and interrogated diplomatic staff have been identified and have connections to the US intelligence agency. The CIA has denied any involvement but government sources say their response was “unconvincing.”

If it is proven that the CIA was behind the attack, it could lead to a diplomatic spat between Madrid and Washington. Government sources say that it would be “unacceptable” for an ally to take such action. Not only would it mean that the US agency had operated on Spanish soil without asking for authorization or informing the authorities, it would also be a violation of the international conventions that protect diplomatic delegations.

What’s more, unlike other intelligence activities – such as cyberattacks, which are characterized by their discretion, the attack on the North Korean embassy was especially violent. On February 22 at 3pm, 10 masked men carrying alleged imitation weapons broke into the embassy, located north of the capital in the residential area of Aravaca. They tied up the eight people inside and put bags on their heads. The victims were beaten and interrogated. A woman managed to escape from a window on the second floor and her screams for help were heard by a neighbor, who contacted the police.

The end of tourism?

International tourism arrivals grew by nearly 6% last year to 1.4 billion, according to figures from the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

Experts at the UNWTO predict that by 2100, the entire planet will be like a giant international airport, with a permanent floating population of billions of backpackers camping out in every Brazilian beach, Thai village and Mongolian yurt, turning the world into an extension of Instagram.

Backpackers

That is, of course, if current trends continue. But what if they don’t? We take it for granted, but the ease and safety of global travel today is really unbelievable, relying as it does not only on technology, but also the low cost of fuel, geopolitical stability, the openness of many countries to tourism, and a global middle class that can afford to vacation abroad. The problem is, none of the above conditions are set in stone. A large-scale war, economic depression, or energy shock, among other possible disruptions, could trigger a collapse in international travel, perhaps marking the end of the era of mass global tourism.

Consider this item from last week:

Americans traveling to Europe will soon have to add a new item to their packing lists.

Starting in 2021, the European Union will require US visitors to get a pre-approved, visa-like travel pass issued by the European Travel Information and Authorization System.

The permit will cost about $7.90 and will have to be requested at least four days before the journey—making romantic last-minute jaunts to Paris impossible.

The new requirement is described as a “security check.” It may be just a minor hassle for travelers, but a continued tightening of visa rules in Europe and elsewhere could put a serious damper on tourist flows. And as one blogger comments: “This throws a wrench into international travel, but the bigger wrench will come when the EU collapses.”

Nationalism is on the rise, and it’s possible that many countries will develop a sudden allergy to foreign backpackers, especially as concerns grow about “overtourism.” In this context it’s interesting to note that Thailand has closed Maya Bay, made famous by the Leonardo DiCaprio movie movie The Beach, indefinitely, while the Philippines shut down the popular island of Boracay for a six-month cleanup last year – it reopened with strict limits on tourist numbers.

Another factor is the state of the “rules-based international order,” which looks increasingly wobbly at the moment. The US State Department warns its citizens to “Exercise Increased Caution” when traveling to China owing to the latter’s coercive “exit ban” policy – thus international travel between the world’s two largest economies is officially fraught with risk. The situation could get far worse if geopolitical tensions continue to escalate, and it goes without saying that a world war would pretty much destroy the tourism industry. And global conflict is on the rise.

The takeaway? Enjoy Boracay while you still can!

Venezuela heats up

Things are getting dicey – will it end in the use of force, as some fear?

Venezuela’s Supreme Court has barred opposition leader Juan Guaido from leaving the country as international pressure mounts against the government led by President Nicolas Maduro.

The move comes hours after chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab asked the government-stacked high court to restrict Guaido’s movements and freeze any assets.

Saab said a criminal probe into Guaido’s anti-government activities has been launched but did not announce any specific charges against him.

Both Saab and the Supreme Court are aligned with the embattled Maduro.

But Maduro is weakening:

More than a week into a standoff with the opposition, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on Wednesday that he is willing to negotiate.

Violent street demonstrations erupted last week after opposition leader Juan Guaido during a major opposition rally in Caracas declared that he had assumed presidential powers under the constitution and planned to hold fresh elections to end Maduro’s “dictatorship.”

On Tuesday, Guaido urged Venezuelans to step outside their homes and workplaces for two hours on Wednesday in the first mass mobilization since last week’s big protests.

Maduro, who previously rejected calls for negotiations, said in an in an interview with Russian state-owned RIA Novosti news agency that he was open to talks with the opposition.

May have something to do with this:

A British minister on Monday suggested that the Bank of England should decline to release £1 billion of gold to Venezuela’s dictator after the opposition leader wrote to Theresa May.

Juan Guaido, who last week declared himself the country’s legitimate ruler and was recognised as such by the US, has written to Mark Carney, the Bank’s governor, to ask him not to hand over the gold to Nicolas Maduro. He also sent the letter to Theresa May, the Prime Minister.

[…]

Mr Maduro has been attempting to repatriate the gold from the vaults since last year. The bullion in London makes up 15 per cent of Venezuela’s foreign currency reserves.

And Bolton brings the mayhem:

The Pentagon has refused to rule out military intervention on Venezuela’s border, a day after John Bolton, the US national security adviser, was photographed carrying a notepad that read: “5,000 troops to Colombia”.

Patrick Shanahan, the acting defence secretary, was asked repeatedly whether Mr Bolton’s notes indicated a deployment.

“I’m not commenting on it,” he said. “I haven’t discussed that with Secretary Bolton.”

Mr Bolton on Monday would not rule out the use of US troops in Venezuela.

Meantime, Defense Blog reports:

Residents of Eastern Venezuela have posted footages of heavy artillery systems, main battle tanks and military equipment moving towards the Colombian border.

Twitter account Already Happened‏ also has release video showing military convoy, included recently ordered Russin-made 2S19 MSTA-S heavy artillery systems, at the route to the Colombian border.

President Maduro fears a foreign military intervention in Venezuela and is ramping up its armored forces along the Colombia border.

A source in Caracas said that Maduro feared that U.S. troops be withdrawn from Afghanistan and Syria, they could be well-suited for redeployment in a Colombia-based conflict with Venezuela.

But the Colombian Defense Ministry reported that the Colombian government is not going to provide the United States will military bases so that the latter could launch a possible military invasion in Venezuela.

Is an invasion in the works?

Venezuela backs down on US diplomat expulsion

Looks like US pressure is working:

Nicolas Maduro’s government backtracked Saturday from its order for U.S. Embassy personnel to leave Venezuela, moving to defuse tensions with Washington just hours after international diplomats traded heated rhetoric at a special U.N. Security Council meeting on the South American country’s crisis.

[…]

His order gave U.S. diplomats three days to leave the country, but the Trump administration said it wouldn’t obey, arguing that Maduro is no longer Venezuela’s legitimate president. That set the stage for a potential showdown at the hilltop U.S. Embassy compound Saturday night, when the deadline was to expire.

But as the sun set on Venezuela’s capital, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying Maduro’s government was suspending the expulsion to provide a 30-day window for negotiating with the Trump administration on setting up a “U.S. interests office” in Venezuela and a similar Venezuelan office in the United States. The U.S. and Cuba had a similar arrangement for decades before the Obama administration restored diplomatic relations with the communist-run island..

(See also)

Venezuela crisis

Read this blog to see the future. Back in November, I noted a media report that Colombian president Ivan Duque had agreed to support Brazil or the US if they decided to invade Venezuela to overthrow the country’s socialist government. (Columbia and Brazil denied the report.)

Well, two months later (Jan 2) we learned that the US was laying the groundwork for some sort of intervention in coordination with Brazil and Colombia:

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is pledging to support allies in South America as they respond to the crisis in Venezuela.

In remarks Wednesday in Brazil, Pompeo said he and Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo discussed their “deep desire to return democracy” to Venezuela.

Later in Colombia, Pompeo said he discussed with President Ivan Duque how their nations might collaborate to help people in Venezuela while also responding to the flood of migrants fleeing that country’s economic collapse, though he provided few details on what was discussed.

And then on Wednesday, this happened:

Amid widespread protests on the streets of Venezuela, the newly elected chief of the country’s National Assembly declared himself “interim president” on Wednesday, prompting an immediate endorsement from US President Donald Trump.

“Today, I am officially recognizing the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaido, as the Interim President of Venezuela,” Trump said in a statement from the White House.

“In its role as the only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the Venezuelan people, the National Assembly invoked the country’s constitution to declare Nicolas Maduro illegitimate, and the office of the presidency therefore vacant. The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law,” the statement continued.

President Nicolas Maduro rejected this action, which he described as a US-backed coup, and gave US diplomatic personnel 72 hours to leave the country. The US responded by saying it stands with Guaido and “will take appropriate actions to hold accountable anyone who endangers the safety and security of our mission and its personnel.” Quoth Senator Marco Rubio:

President @jguaido has asked us to remain. The United States should NOT comply with this illegitimate order from Maduro.

It should be made clear that we are prepared to take all actions necessary to guarantee the safety of our diplomats in #Venezuela.

I sense another Grenada coming.

Ok, so I can’t claim to have predicted all this in my November blog post. But I did make this comment, which I continue to stand by:

Caution is needed here. The American public does not want another foreign war, and a major intervention in South America is guaranteed to be a multi-faceted disaster.

Full steam ahead

China bullet train countryside

This is what a serious country looks like:

China plans to build 3,200 km of new high-speed railways in 2019, with the total length expected to exceed 30,000 km, the country’s top railway operator said Wednesday.

For all the ‘Muricans reading this, that’s nearly 2,000 miles of new track – roughly the distance from Philadelphia to Phoenix – with a total of more than 18,600 miles. Incidentally, the peak year for US rail-building was 1887, when more than 13,000 miles of track were laid down.

The 3,000-plus km of high-speed railways are part of the planned development of 6,800 km of new railways for the new year as the country will keep fixed-asset investment on railway on a large scale, Lu Dongfu, general manager of the China Railway (CR), told a work conference.

6,800 km = 4,225 mi

The country saw an expanding high-speed railway network over the years, with a total length of 29,000 km by the end of 2018, accounting for more than two-thirds of the total high-speed railway in the world. China aims to build 30,000 km of high-speed railways by 2020.

China’s railways are expected to transport 3.54 billion passengers and 3.37 billion tonnes of goods this year, the general manager said.

[…]

Lu said the CR would facilitate the investigation and research of Sichuan-Tibet railway and try to start construction by the end of the third-quarter of 2019.

Never let it be said that China isn’t ambitious. I’d love to have me some high-speed rail on the Acela corridor (Boston to DC, with stops at New York and Philly) and – what the hell, as long as we’re dreaming – between New York and Los Angeles.

Imagine if the US were an advanced country and had the wherewithal to build a high-speed superconducting maglev train that could rocket people between New York and LA in under seven hours, following in the footsteps of China, Japan, and South Korea, which all operate similar systems on a much smaller scale.

Here’s my account of taking the bullet train from Guangzhou to Beijing back in 2013.

An emerging alliance

China Russia military exercises

Harvard Kennedy School’s Graham Allison ponders the rapidly solidifying alliance of convenience between Russia and China:

Given these structural realities, the prospects for a Chinese-Russian alliance in the longer run are undoubtedly grim. But political leaders live in the here and now. Denied opportunities in the West, what alternative do Russians have but to turn East? Moreover, while history deals the hands, human beings play the cards, even sometimes practicing a quaint art known in earlier eras as diplomacy. The confluence of China’s strategic foresight and exquisite diplomacy, on the one hand, and U.S. and Western European clumsiness, on the other, has produced an increasingly thick and consequential alignment between two geopolitical rivals, Russia and China.

In international relations, an elementary proposition states: “the enemy of my enemy is a friend.” The balance of power—military, economic, intelligence, diplomatic—between rivals is critical. To the extent that China persuades Russia to sit on its side of the see-saw, this adds to China’s heft, a nuclear superpower alongside an economic superpower.

American presidents since Bill Clinton have not only neglected the formation of this grievance coalition; unintentionally but undeniably, they have nurtured it. Russia emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 with a leader eager to “bury Communism,” as Boris Yeltsin put it, and join the West. The story of how we reached the depth of enmity today is a long one, strewn with mistakes by all parties. The Clinton administration’s decision in 1996 to expand NATO toward Russia’s borders, Kennan observed, was the “most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.” He predicted that the consequence would be a Russia that “would likely look elsewhere for guarantees of a secure and hopeful future for themselves.”

The growing Sino-Russian alignment is economic, diplomatic, and most worryingly for the US, military in nature:

Most American experts discount Sino-Russian military cooperation. Commenting on this year’s unprecedented military exercise in which 3,000 Chinese soldiers joined 300,000 Russians in practicing scenarios for conflict with NATOin Eastern Europe, Secretary of Defense Mattis said: “I see little in the long term that aligns Russia and China.”

HE SHOULD look more carefully. What has emerged is what a former senior Russian national security official described to me as a “functional military alliance.” Russian and Chinese generals’ staffs now have candid, detailed discussions about the threat U.S. nuclear modernization and missile defenses pose to each of their strategic deterrents. For decades, in selling arms to China, Russia was careful to withhold its most advanced technologies. No longer. In recent years it has not only sold China its most advanced air defense systems, the S-400s, but has actively engaged with China in joint r&d on rockets engines—and UAVs. Joint military exercises by their navies in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015, the South China Sea in 2016 and the Baltic Sea in 2017 compare favorably with U.S.-Indian military exercises. As a Chinese colleague observed candidly, if the United States found itself in a conflict with China in the South China Sea, what should it expect Putin might do in the Baltics?

Pushing Russia away from the Western alliance and into China’s arms was phenomenally stupid, a foreign policy catastrophe for the ages. On the other hand, it’s probably time for the US to wind down its imperial meddling in Eurasia and focus on problems closer to home. The China-Russia rapprochement will certainly hasten that process. And being a regional, rather than a global, power isn’t so bad.

More on Huawei CFO arrest

We learned last week why the US wants Meng Wanzhou extradited:

With Ms. Meng, 46, seated inside a glass box at British Columbia’s Supreme Court, Mr. Gibb-Carsley laid out what had led to her arrest. He said that between 2009 and 2014, Huawei used a Hong Kong company, Skycom Tech, to make transactions in Iran and do business with telecom companies there, in violation of American sanctions. Banks in the United States cleared financial transactions for Huawei, inadvertently doing business with Skycom, he said.

The banks were “victim institutions” of fraud by Ms. Meng, Mr. Gibb-Carsley said. In 2013, articles by Reuters alleged that Huawei used Skycom to do business in Iran, and had tried to import American-made computer equipment into the country in violation of sanctions. Several financial institutions asked Huawei if the allegations were true, Mr. Gibb-Carsley said.

At the time, Ms. Meng arranged a meeting with an executive from one of the financial institutions, he said. During the meeting, she spoke through an English interpreter and presented PowerPoint slides in Chinese, saying that Huawei operated in Iran in strict compliance with United States sanctions. Ms. Meng explained that Huawei’s engagement with Skycom was part of normal business operations and that Huawei had sold the shares it once held in Skycom.

But there was no distinction between Skycom and Huawei, Mr. Gibb-Carsley said. Huawei operated Skycom as an unofficial subsidiary, making efforts to keep the connection between the companies secret. […]

Ms. Meng’s presentation to the financial institution constituted fraud, Mr. Gibb-Carsley said. Her attorney, David Martin, said the bank was HSBC.

The legal nuances of this are way above my pay grade, but this is definitely a provocative move by the US:

No business executive has EVER been arrested for sanctions violations before — much less someone of Meng’s prominence. This is not law enforcement business-as-usual but a new and dramatic escalation. How on earth could tis have been done without informing POTUS?

===

It surely could have been done without Trump’s knowledge: It is a policy measure masquerading as a criminal justice action. The president is not informed over every extradition request, and this could have been processed at Assistant Secretary level, according to friends who have worked in sanctions enforcement at a senior level.

China appears to have taken a hostage in response:

A former Canadian diplomat has been detained in China, two sources said on Tuesday, and his current employer, the International Crisis Group, said it was seeking his prompt and safe release. […]

“International Crisis Group is aware of reports that its North East Asia Senior Adviser, Michael Kovrig, has been detained in China,” the think-tank said in a statement. […]

The exact reason for the detention, which was made sometime early this week, according to the sources, was not immediately clear.

By the way, those who are inclined to voice their outrage and righteous indignation over this shocking act of American thuggishness might want to consider China’s history of detaining foreign citizens under often dubious circumstances. I would add to this list Mark Reilly, the British head of GSK’s China operations, who spent a year in and out of detention before being deported from China following a secret one-day trial.

Sadly, like anyone facing legal problems in autocratic China, Mr Reilly’s human rights have since been blithely disregarded by the authorities.

For months, he had only limited means to communicate with friends, family, and legal representatives, and was unable to see Louise, Jessica or Jill.

Then, in May, this already perilous situation took a turn for the worse. At a police press conference in Changsha, a 90-minute flight west of Shanghai, Mr Reilly was formally accused of presiding over a ‘massive bribery network’ in which doctors and health officials were illegally paid £320 million over several years.

In scenes reminiscent of a Soviet-era show trial, detectives aggressively dubbed him a criminal ‘Godfather’, who they claimed had greased palms with cash and free holidays, and arranged for associates to be given sexual favours from prostitutes.

They were shocked, shocked to find bribery and sexual favors going on here!