Category Archives: Globe in Brief, Spring 2016

Trump in List of Top 10 Global Risks

The Economist Intelligence Unit, a think-tank affiliated with the Economist magazine, has ranked Donald Trump winning the U.S. presidency among the top ten risks facing the world. The reasons given were that he could disrupt the world economy and increase the security threat to the United States.

The list prioritizes risks to the strength of global markets, but in that regard, a Trump presidency is tied with “the rising threat of jihadi terrorism” and is ranked even riskier than an armed clash in the South China Sea.

Though Trump has given very few details of his policy plans, he has been critical of both free trade and the Chinese economic position, and his stance on the U.S.-Mexican border “could rapidly escalate into a trade war”. Trump’s aggressive foreign policy stance could also create instability in the Middle East; he has said his strategy for stopping terrorism would be to kill the families of enemy combatants.

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Hackers’ $1bn Bank Heist Blocked by Typo

A spelling mistake in an online bank transfer between the Bangladeshi Central Bank and the New York Federal Reserve prompted the routing Deutsche Bank to seek clarification. On closer inspection, the high number of payments to private entities raised suspicions at the Federal Reserve, which then uncovered the hack when it contacted the Bangladeshi bank.

The transfers, which would have involved up to $870 million, were halted because a fake NGO’s name was spelled “fandation” instead of “foundation”. The money was being routed to accounts in the Philippines and Sri Lanka, officials said. The unknown hackers still got away with $81 million before their efforts were stopped, which makes it one of the largest known bank thefts in history.

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Iran Conducts Missile Tests as Show of Force

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard conducted two days of missile launches in early March and was able to strike targets 1,400 km away, according to Iranian media. The tests are the first time Iran has fired ballistic missiles since signing a deal with the U.N. on its nuclear program in July. U.S. officials said the tests did not violate its own Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the nation, but they may have been in breach of the U.N. resolution.

The Iranian Student News Agency quoted military officials as saying the missiles are designed “to hit our enemy, the Zionist regime, from a safe distance,” referring to Israel, but the display may also stand as a warning to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s other regional rival.

The U.S. will “aggressively apply […] unilateral tools to counter threats from Iran’s missile program,” according to the State Department. The test-firing of the ballistic missiles underlines a rift between Iran’s hard-line factions, which oppose normalization of relations with the West, and the moderate government of Hassan Rouhani, who is trying to have sanctions lifted and attract foreign investors.

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Google AI Beats Go Champion

Google’s AlphaGo AI, trained to play the ancient Chinese game of go, beat one of the game’s world champions, Lee Sedol, in a televised match. AlphaGo won the first game, which Google estimates had over 60 million viewers on Chinese television, and went on to win three more out of the five-game match-up.

Computers have dominated chess, with its relatively fewer number of possible moves, since 1996, but go had long been considered too complex for computers to master. Instead of being programmed to play, Google’s AlphaGo was programmed to learn and then taught how to play. After playing through millions of games and learning from its mistakes, it was finally ready to take on a world champion.

Lee’s win over AlphaGo in the fourth match shows the machine was fallible, and after the matches, observers were able to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of various moves AlphaGo made; however, the artificial intelligence often surprised its opponent with moves that “no human would have made” but that nonetheless helped secure its victories.

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Leaks Reveal U.S. Spied on U.N. Secretary General

Highly classified documents published by WikiLeaks in February show that the U.S. National Security Agency has targeted many high-ranking international figures. The intercepts, classified TOP-SECRET COMINT-GAMMA, are the most highly classified documents ever published by a media organization.

Among other operations, the documents revealed that the NSA bugged a private climate change strategy meeting between U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin; singled out the Chief of Staff of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for long-term interception of his phone; singled out the Director of the Rules Division of the World Trade Organisation, Johann Human, for long-term interception of his phone; and stole sensitive Italian diplomatic cables detailing how Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu implored Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to help patch up his relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama, who was refusing to talk to Netanyahu.

“We proved the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s private meetings over how to save the planet from climate change were bugged by a country intent on protecting its largest oil companies,” said WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange. “If the United Nations Secretary General, whose communications and person have legal inviolability, can be repeatedly attacked without consequence then everyone is at risk.”

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Continued Allegations of Corruption for South African President

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma has survived a no-confidence vote in parliament, while a court is hearing a case to reinstate 738 corruption charges against him. Zuma has denied the allegations, linked to a multi-billion dollar arms deal negotiated over a decade ago.

South African police have also announced a corruption probe into Zuma’s son Duduzane and the Guptas, a family of businessmen accused of wielding improper political influence.

Although the Guptas’ relationship with Zuma has been a source of controversy for years, the latest developments involve senior figures saying the family has exerted undue sway, including offering cabinet positions. The Guptas, whose businesses stretch from media to mining, have denied the allegations and say they are pawns in a plot to oust Zuma.

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Saudi Arabia Attacking Civilians in Yemen

A United Nations panel investigating the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen has uncovered “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilian targets in violation of international humanitarian law.

The report says: “Many attacks involved multiple airstrikes on multiple civilian objects. Of the 119 sorties, the panel identified 146 targeted objects. The panel also documented three alleged cases of civilians fleeing residential bombings and being chased and shot at by helicopters.”

Saudi Arabia, one of the biggest buyers of U.K. defense equipment, including planes, began bombing in Yemen in March last year in support of the Yemeni president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was under threat from Houthi forces aligned with Iran.
In a ministerial statement in March 2014, the U.K. government said explicitly that it “will […] not grant a license if there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law”.

An arms sale between Saudi Arabia and Canada has also caused uproar in the latter country.

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Ships Going the Long Way Round with Cheap Oil

Container ships that would normally go through the Panama and Suez canals have instead been going the long way round the continents of South America and Africa, according to a report from SeaIntel.

The six-month report from the second half of 2015 showed that 115 vessels connecting Europe and the U.S. East Coast to Asia made the back-haul trip by sailing round the Cape of Good Hope rather than through the Suez canal, despite using it on the forward legs of the trip.

Vessels sailing via the Suez Canal have to pay an average of $465,000 for passage, according to SeaIntel, which calculated that the South Africa route would save an average of $235,000 per voyage. “SeaIntel concludes that both the canals face a significant challenge in the current low bunker price, as it means that for many services, it is cheaper to sail south of Africa on the backhaul than to use the canal routings,” the report added.

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