What We're Watching: VP Harris on Central America trip, FBI dupes crooks, India reverses course on vaccines

US Vice President Kamala Harris

VP Harris tours Central America: US Vice President Kamala Harris this week embarked on her first official foreign trip since assuming that role, making stops in both Mexico and Guatemala. After immigration became a major political headache for the Biden administration, with Central American migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border in historic numbers in recent months, Biden tapped Harris to oversee issues related to the root causes of mass migration from Central America (which he distinguishes from the so-called "border crisis''). Harris, for her part, has been pushing the US private sector to invest more in the Northern Triangle countries — Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — that are plagued by corruption and crime, and account for the bulk of migrants arriving at the US' southern border. Harris has also engaged in vaccine diplomacy to shore up support, announcing that the US will ship COVID vaccines to both Guatemala and Mexico. Immigration is a massive electoral problem for President Biden, with polls suggesting that 48 percent of Americans disapprove of his handling of the issue. Harris is trying to fix that. But analysts say that this trip is also an opportunity for the VP to bolster her own foreign policy bonafides as she looks at a future presidential run.


Global crime ring duped: More than 800 alleged members of an international crime syndicate have been arrested in a global sting operation coordinated by Australia, Europol, and the FBI. How did they get busted? Law enforcement authorities tracked their nefarious plots involving drug smuggling, money laundering and even murder on ANOM, a secret messaging app that the crooks believed was untraceable. The whole operation was a ruse coordinated by the FBI, which had its informants distribute customized devices loaded with the app following an earlier crackdown on similar encrypted messaging services. Indeed, the operation reveals that cooperation among law enforcement agencies on different sides of the globe can be more successful at times than direct coordination between the governments that oversee them, especially when it's about fighting transnational crime. More broadly, we'll be keeping an eye on how the same agencies might work together to combat cyberattacks, which have risen significantly in recent months and overwhelmingly target national governments and private corporations.

Modi's vaccine U-turn: As India gets ready to reopen its economy after its recent COVID crisis has receded somewhat, embattled Prime Minister Narendra Modi now says the national government will take over the vaccine distribution process, a source of much contention in recent months. Modi says his government will provide free vaccines to all adults, and procure shots for states and private hospitals. It's a massive development considering that state governments and private hospitals have long been competing with the federal government for supplies like oxygen, medication and vaccines, leading to a sprawling black market. India has been flailing since a series of political missteps in February and March, and now records the world's second highest COVID death toll. This is a big about-face for Modi, who at times has responded to criticism of his pandemic management by saying that decision-making resides with the states. Still, Modi's approval ratings have plummeted in the past two months over his mishandling of the latest wave of the pandemic and the country's lackluster vaccine rollout: So far, barely 5 percent of Indians over 18 have received at least one shot, and most experts think it's impossible to inoculate the entire adult population by the end of the year, as the PM has pledged. As the world's top vaccine manufacturer, India's manufacturing shortfalls are also impacting vaccine rollouts in Africa, Asia and Latin America in devastating ways.
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U.S. President Joe Biden is seen in a White House handout photo as he speaks with European leaders about Russia and the situation in Ukraine during a secure video teleconference from the Situation Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 24, 2022.

Western powers claim that they present a united front against the Kremlin’s current threats in Ukraine. But clearly there are reasons for doubt. President Joe Biden provided more last week when he appeared to question whether NATO would in fact act with “total unity” if Vladimir Putin orders Russian troops across the Ukrainian border.

Do Western allies really agree on a common approach to keeping Russia out of Ukraine? What are the major points of contention among them?

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Beating China at AI | GZERO World

The US and China compete on many fronts, and one of them is artificial intelligence.

But China has a different set of values, which former Google CEO Eric Schmidt is not a big fan of — especially when those values shape the AI on apps his children use.

"You may not care where your kids are, and TikTok may know where your teenagers are, and that may not bother you," he says. "But you certainly don't want them to be affected by algorithms that are inspired by the Chinese and not by Western values."

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Russia & China vs “the West”

Russian President Vladimir Putin attempts to shake hands with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping during a meeting in Moscow, Russia, June 5, 2019.

REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina

Russia and China have always had a complicated relationship. They almost went to war over a border dispute in 1969, and have historically regarded each other as neither friends nor enemies, but rather competitors for influence in Asia and elsewhere.

But that all started to change in 2014, the year Moscow and Beijing saw a US hand in the revolutions that prompted Russia to seize Crimea from Ukraine, and China to crack down on umbrella-wearing protesters in Hong Kong. China is increasingly thirsty for Russian oil and natural gas, and both have a common interest in standing up to “the West.”

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are now showing off their authoritarian bromance in the face of growing animosity from the US and its allies over flashpoints such as Ukraine and Taiwan.

We know how much of the West views Russia and China. But how do Russia and China view the West? Here's a hypothetical recent catch-up video call between BFFs Putin and Xi.

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The Graphic Truth: Coups ain’t what they used to be
Gabriella Turrisi & Paige Fusco

Rebel soldiers have ousted Burkina Faso's democratic government in the first military coup of 2022. Last year, soldiers also seized power in Myanmar, Mali, Guinea and Sudan. But attempts around the globe in recent decades have become both less common and less successful. That's partly because the end of the Cold War diminished outside superpowers' interest in backing coups against governments they didn't like. Here's a look at the historical record.

What We’re Watching: Burkina Faso coup, China’s “pure” internet, Thailand decriminalizes weed

Captain Sidsore Kader Ouedraogo, centre, spokesman for the military government, with uniformed soldiers from the Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration or MPSR, announces on a television studio that they have taken power in Burkina Faso.

Radio Television du Burkina (RTB)/Handout via EYEPRESS

Another coup in volatile West Africa. Monday’s military coup in Burkina Faso is the fourth armed takeover of a West African government in just 17 months. As in neighboring countries like Mali — which has had not one but two coups since 2020 — it will be hard for outsiders, like the African Union and the regional group ECOWAS to reverse this assault on an elected government. Why? For one thing, al-Qaeda and Islamic State-affiliated militant groups are winning battles with soldiers and killing civilians in barely governed parts of Burkina Faso. For another, more than 1.5 million of the country’s 21 million people have been forced from their homes since 2018. Street protests in major cities and mutinies in military bases have made clear in recent months just how unsustainable Burkina Faso’s security situation has become. Events in Mali, Niger, and Guinea have followed a worryingly similar pattern, and the Ivory Coast and Benin also face growing jihadist threats. We’ll be watching to see whether Burkina Faso’s junta has more success than the government it ousted in beating back jihadist attacks and restoring security to the country — and what happens if it doesn’t.

China's internet "purification" campaign. Xi Jinping doesn't like big celebrities — other than his famous singer wife — because they often show off their expensive lifestyles online, encouraging Chinese youth to worship money instead of the ruling Communist Party. That's why ahead of next week's Lunar New Year, the government plans to take down celebrity fan groups and censor influencers whom Xi regards as "unpatriotic." What's more, minors will no longer be allowed to become online influencers. The campaign is part of Xi's broader "common prosperity" vision to combat rising wealth inequality in China, which has prompted a surge of charitable giving by tycoons, especially tech billionaires. It has also canceled celebrities who flaunted their wealth or embarrassed the CCP by doing things like visiting a Tokyo shrine that holds the remains of World War II criminals, acquiring foreign citizenship, or using a surrogate to have a baby born in the US. Keep all of this in mind if you're an aspiring influencer in China.

Thai stoners rejoice. On Tuesday, Thailand became the first Asian country to decriminalize cannabis by dropping it from its list of banned substances. This is a very big deal for a country known for some of the world’s toughest anti-drug laws, including the death penalty for anyone caught with even small amounts of certain narcotics. Still, a tangle of laws related to cannabis leaves unclear whether recreational use and possession will be prosecuted. For now, the percentage of THC — the psychoactive compound in cannabis that makes you high — must be under 0.2 percent. In recent years, Thailand has relaxed its policy on so-called soft drugs, first legalizing medical marijuana and later kratom, a popular plant-based mild stimulant and painkiller. But the country still has a big problem with addiction to hard drugs — especially yaba (crazy pill), a highly addictive combination of methamphetamine and caffeine sourced from the lawless border areas of neighboring Myanmar.
Hard Numbers: Oz buys Aboriginal flag, Malawi vs corruption, ISIS human shields, Boris the party animal

Children hold an indigenous flag at a Black Deaths in Custody Rally at Town Hall in Sydney, Saturday, April 10, 2021.

AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

14: The Australian government paid $14 million for the copyright of the Aboriginal flag so that anyone can display it without fear of being sued. Indigenous artist Harold Thomas created the flag 50 years ago as a protest image; since then, it has become the dominant Aboriginal symbol and an official national flag.

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Russia's Actions Towards Ukraine Are Strengthening NATO | World In :60 | GZERO Media

Ian Bremmer shares his insights on global politics this week on Russian escalation of Ukraine strengthening NATO, omicron and the end of COVID-19, and on the most recent military coup in West Africa — Burkina Faso:

How will Russian escalation of Ukraine strengthen NATO?

Well, NATO over the last 10, 20 years even was increasingly beset by problems. You had the US unilateralism focused more on Asia. You had the old mission of defending against the Russians less relevant. The French wanting strategic autonomy. Macron leaning into that. Now, of course, Merkel's gone, too. But the proximate reality in danger of the Russians invading Ukraine, actually, as much as the Europeans are more dependent on the Russians for their economy and their gas, they're also more concerned about Russia in terms of national security. That has driven a lot of coordination, including announcements of a lot more troops and material from being sent by NATO states to Ukraine and also to defend NATO borders, like in the Baltic states as well as Bulgaria and Romania. I would argue that what Putin's been doing so far has had no impact greater than bolstering NATO, and it's one of the reasons why I'm skeptical that a full-on invasion is something that Putin has in the cards because that would frankly do more than anything else out there to make NATO, focused on Russia, a serious and going concern.

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