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NightWatch 20110830


For the Night of 30 August 2011

Japan:  Yoshihiko Noda is the new prime minister.

South Korea: President Lee has replaced hard-line Unification Minister Hyun In Taek with a former ambassador to China, signaling a further easing of Lee's tough position in dealing with North Korea. IN response to public opinion and US pressure, Lee is exploring improved relations with North Korea.

Comment: The new Minister is Yu Woo Ik who also served as Lee's chief of staff. South Korean experts suggest his contacts with China will improve indirect contacts with North Korea. The Lee government's public information managers insist the move does not signify a policy change. They are correct. The policy changed when earlier this year the Lee government softened and dropped its requirement that the North apologize for its atrocities last year and pay reparations for the damage it inflicted.

Analysts for Bloomberg pointed out that the Lee's government's hard line was reinforced by the US President who articulated a policy of not rewarding bad behavior, such as nuclear weapons proliferation. The US policy has softened and so has South Korea's. Thus far, the thaw has gained nothing except a pass for North Korean bad behavior without assurances that it will not be repeated whenever it suits the North.

Burma (Myanmar)-China: The Burma Railway Transportation Minister Aung Min told the press on 29 August that construction on a US $20 billion rail link between the Burma-China border and a Burmese port on the Indian Ocean could begin as early as December. "We will start the construction of Muse-Kyauk Phyu railroad in the coming December if detailed discussions on the agreement are completed."

According to Aung, the project will take five years. China will bear the cost and the agreement will be based on BOT (build, operate and transfer) for 50 years. Eventually, the electric trains will be capable of travelling at speeds of up to 200 kilometers per hour and of carrying 4,000 tons of goods.

"China will use this railroad to transport goods from Kyauk Phyu port to its capital Beijing and other cities via Ruli and Kunming. Their ships will no longer need to sail through Malacca Strait."

China also has made plans to build a pipeline along the same route as the railway to carry natural gas to Yunnan, southern China.

Comment: Burma's Rail Transportation Ministry and China's Railways Engineering Corporation signed a memorandum of understanding in April to develop jointly the China-Myanmar Railway. China is undertaking similar projects in Pakistan and Iran that reduce the requirement to rely on the Straits of Malacca and Singapore for imports or exports.

(For the record: The US government does not recognize Myanmar as the name of Burma.)

Iraq: For the record. Prime Minister al-Maliki said in a statement on 30 August that US forces will leave Iraq as scheduled by the end of 2011, and there will be no permanent U.S. bases in Iraq.

Comment: This closes the argument about an extended stay of any kind and represents a political victory for Iran and its Iraqi Shiite proxies. The question of a residual training team remains open.

Palestinian National Authority: "There may be attempts on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' life if he travels to Gaza," Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar said on 30 August. Abbas will not be visiting Gaza, Zahar said during an interview with London-based al-Quds al-Arabi. Zahar dismissed Abbas' attempts to restart the reconciliation process between Hamas and Fatah leadership by saying the implementation of such an agreement is "defunct." He said talks between Fatah and Hamas officials were concerned with only "peripheral matters."

Comment: The reconciliation agreement that Fatah and Hamas signed in April has not lasted through the summer. Their political philosophies and operational preferences are fundamentally incompatible. The break down appears to be significant setback to prospects for an independent Palestinian state in a foreseeable time period.

End of NightWatch for 30 August.

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