Meridian Reads: African free trade, Bolton and the Mekong

Former National Security Adviser John Bolton.


Hey there, Meridian Readers. You know the drill by now, let’s jump on it.

What an African free-trade deal means for the world

Publication: The Washington Post | By Ishaan Tharoor

  • Had a busy year? So has Africa.
    • After more than 365 days of diplomatic effort, on September 9 South African President Cyril Ramaphosa extolled the virtues of a potentially monumental African free-trade pact.
    • How monumental? Ramaphosa said the deal is “going to be the greatest opportunity for economies on the continent to generate growth through trade.” So, pretty monumental.

  • After Nigeria signed on to the African Continental Free Trade Area on the sidelines of the African Union summit in July, investors and politicians started began hypothesizing potential outcomes of the deal.

  • Here’s what could happen:

    • A $3.4 trillion economic zone of about 1.3 billion people. In a report earlier this year, the International Monetary Fund dubbed the free-trade deal a “game changer” if African governments are able to bring down tariffs and boost trade within the continent.

    • A deal that ushers in a successful, more integrated Africa would make the region a “food basket to the rest of the world,” present a “huge consumer base” attractive to global investors, stem migration flows to Europe and help bring political stability to parts of the continent, said Saif Malik, head of Africa banking for Standard Chartered.

    • So, in short, this deal could really work.
  • “We need to all acknowledge and celebrate the fact that as the rest of the world is raising barriers and building walls, Africa has decided to embrace change,” Albert Zeufack, the World Bank’s chief Africa economist, said.

  • We get it, this sounds too good to be true. And you’re not wrong for thinking so.
    • Zeufack and many other experts offered plenty of cautionary notes. Major obstacles remain before a pact stitching together more than 50 disparate nations across a vast landmass could even start to look like anything resembling the European Union. Beyond the sizable political and bureaucratic hurdles standing between governments and the implementation of the deal, there are broader challenges vexing African economies.

  • Things are still up in the air on this deal, but we’re pretty sure you haven’t heard the last of it.

John Bolton’s departure: good for diplomacy, bad for stability

Publication: Quartz | By Annalisa Merelli

  • No one is totally sure if John Bolton, President Trump’s latest national security advisor, resigned or was fired. Regardless, his departure has impacts.
  • As a refresher, here’s the highlights from his time with the Trump admin:
    • He pushed the president not to meet the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un.
    • He advocated for a missile attack on Iran.
    • He likely scuttled a peace deal that would have ended the nearly two-decade-long war between the U.S. and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
    • He accused the International Criminal Court of being a threat to American sovereignty.
  • How are diplomats taking the news?
    • Some are taking it well. Others are nervous.
    • Former U.S. diplomat and Obama White House staffer Brett Bruen says the dangers of instability are greater than those posed by a national security advisor who doesn’t like diplomacy.

      • “The most important feature of a national security strategy is stability,” Bruen told Quartz.

      • He added that stability is key to develop trust both externally with allies and players in the international field.

  • Bruen also said it’s important that the position is filled immediately, and not by an acting advisor or by the deputy national security advisor, or the U.S. could be sorely unprepared in the face of any emergencies.

Mekong River, the lifeblood of Southeast Asia, becomes geopolitical battleground

Publication: The Washington Diplomat | By Deryl Davis a3.china.mekong.vietnam.harvest.story

  • Here’s the scoop: on Aug. 1, diplomats from the United States, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam came together in Bangkok to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Lower Mekong Initiative.
    • The focus of the LMI was health, education and infrastructure development in the lands that rely on Southeast Asia’s most important river.
    • As attendees celebrated a decade of cooperation, upriver on the Nam Ou, a tributary of the Mekong in Laos, Chinese contractors were busily working on a series of dams that both threaten the Mekong’s downstream environment and herald China’s expansive, and perhaps newly dominant, presence in the region.
    • Given the river’s strategic importance as an economic and trade lifeline for Southeast Asia, China’s control of the Mekong could have far-reaching repercussions for the region.
      • Some have even compared Chinese investment in the Mekong with its expansionism in the contested waters of the South China Sea, where Beijing’s military buildup has led to tensions with Washington.
  • Alright, now you’re caught up.
  • recent headline in the online Asia Times read “China Winning New Cold War on the Mekong,” in reference to Beijing’s expansive economic diplomacy in the region versus American efforts such as the Lower Mekong Initiative.
  • According to Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, the LMI “was a solid start toward placing a higher U.S. priority on the Mekong,” but such U.S.-backed efforts will inevitably fall short given China’s geographic proximity to the region and the massive development funds at its disposal.
  • The situation in the Mekong is a wait-and-see game, but many anticipate tensions over the region continuing to grow.

Pssst: Our #DiplomacyForum highlighted the strategic importance of the Mekong. Check out more details here.

That’s it for this week, we’ll catch you next time.