Also: Why North Korea's Covid outbreak is so dangerous. โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ โ€Œ 

Wednesday, 18 May  |  Read online

Hi Intriguer. Google is adding 24 languages to its Translate product. The additional languages are spoken by a total of more than 300 million people, and include Bhojpuri (spoken by ~50 million people in India, Nepal, and Fiji) and Lingala (spoken by ~45 million people across Central Africa).

Fun fact: we use Google Translate every day to translate the front pages of newspapers all around the world to show you what's making the news outside of the English-speaking mainstream media!

Today's briefing is a ~4.7 min read:

  • ๐Ÿค Iran and Cuba: swapping oil for wheat.
  • โž• Plus: Why North Koreaโ€™s Covid-19 outbreak is so dangerous, a Chinese spy ship off the Australian coast, and Vietnam flutters its eyelashes at Greece.

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Mehr News Agency (Tehran)

"Iranian, Saudi FMs to meet in Iraq in near future says MP. "Bilateral issues, the re-opening of embassies and the Yemeni crisis will be discussed during the meeting," the MP added."

The Herald (Harare)

"Zimbabwe imposes capital controls to stem currency depreciation. The central bank has banned third country foreign payments, except for fuel, to encourage remittance of export proceeds back to the country."

Yomiuri Shimbun (Tokyo)

"Defense Minister Kishi says Chinese aircraft carrier 'Liaoning' must be "monitored with concern". The PLA Navy carrier flew more than 100 sorties over six days close to Japanese and Taiwanese territorial waters."

Diario de Mรฉxico (Mexico City)
"Violence cost the Mexican economy $243 billion dollars, or 2.8% of GDP. Despite this, Mexico invests only 0.6% of GDP in security and justice, compared with 1.7% for the rest of Latin America."

Dagens Nyheter (Stockholm)
"57% of Swedes for NATO, up from 48% at the end of April. The poll also showed Finland's actions have been of great importance to Sweden's voters."


Tehran and Havana inch closer together

In two sentences: Cuba and Iran have agreed to barter Cuban grain in exchange for Iranian crude oil. The deal makes sense for both countries, but officials in Washington will be hoping that the relationship doesn't go any further.

Via Giphy.

Tehran-Havana solidarity

The agreement to barter oil for wheat was made during the 18th meeting of the Iran-Cuba Joint Commission on Economic Cooperation in Tehran.

  • The agreement will see Havana ship grain to Tehran in exchange for Iran's crude oil.

The agreement comes at an opportune time, as both countries need each other's assistance:

  • Cuba is having trouble purchasing oil, thanks to skyrocketing oil prices and historically-low oil shipments from Venezuela.
  • Iran is having similar difficulties, but with wheat: protests broke out two weeks ago as the price of flour-based staples tripled after the government cut subsidies for grain imports.

Iran-Cuban cooperation

Both Iran and Cuba are card-carrying members of the (admittedly less-and-less exclusive) โ€˜Sanctioned by the US Club'. That means that even though the two don't have a lot in common on paper, they've got plenty of reasons to want to work together.

  • Last year, Cuba seriously considered allowing two Iranian warships believed to be carrying arms destined for Venezuela to dock in their waters, despite US protests.

  • Iran is set to become the first foreign manufacturer of one of Cubaโ€™s Covid-19 vaccines, a sign of the growing scientific and technological ties between the two countries.

But being best buds is easier said than done
While Iran and Cuba have attempted to cooperate across a wide range of areas, their efforts remain limited by geographic distance, divergent national interests, and a lack of funds:

  • Their most recent high-profile security collaboration happened way back 2003, when Cuba helped Iran jam the transmission of US broadcasts into Iran.

  • Data from 2018 shows that bilateral trade between Iran and Cuba amounted to less than $200,000. Thatโ€™s less than the trade between a Wall Street banker and their dealer. 

Iranโ€™s Latin American ambition

More broadly, Iran sees Latin America as a key player in its economic future. Two-way trade with the region as a whole topped $1.2 billion in the 2021-2022 fiscal year.

  • And that's just the start: last month, Iranโ€™s Oil Minister toured Latin America, signing four memoranda of understanding, two oil supply agreements, and two agricultural agreements.

What does the US think of all this? Thankfully for everyone, Iran-Cuba relations aren't yet a pressing security concern for Washington. Iran and Cubaโ€™s barter deal is evidence of the two countries' strong ideological ties, but their relationship remains largely transactional.

  • The big question worrying Western officials is whether their relationship โ€˜moves up the value chainโ€™ to encompass more substantial economic and security cooperation.

After all, Havana does have form when it comes to working with the USโ€™s adversaries, and if Iran gets the bombโ€ฆ

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Southeast Asia & the Pacific

๐Ÿ‡ฆ๐Ÿ‡บ Australia

A Chinese intelligence ship has been spotted sailing within 50 nautical miles of a communication facility on Australia's west coast.

  • While the vessel did not breach any laws of the sea, analyst Marcus Hellyer said the act was a โ€œdemonstration of [Beijingโ€™s] growing capability - we are going to see more and more of thisโ€.

  • The incident has become a flashpoint in Australiaโ€™s upcoming elections, with the Liberal-National Coalition accusing the Labor Party of being too soft on China.

๐Ÿ‡ซ๐Ÿ‡ฏ Fiji

Fiji is paying the price of US sanctions on Russia as a 106-metre-long superyacht remains anchored in Lautoka amidst a legal battle.

  • The asset is reportedly owned by Russian billionaire Sulieman Kerimov, but an appeal filed by defence lawyers is complicating matters.

  • If you're Fiji, having a $450 million superyacht dumped in your lap might sound good, until you realise that you're saddled with all of the maintenance costs and none of the champagne and lobster on deck.

๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ India

The Modi government has banned all wheat exports, effective immediately.

  • India is the second-largest wheat producer but only a minor wheat exporter. It had a golden opportunity to grow its wheat exports by taking advantage of the global shortage caused by the Russo-Ukrainian war.

  • But the combination of a scorching heatwave threatening this yearโ€™s yield and a 40% increase in global wheat prices since January now has India worried about its domestic needs.

๐Ÿ‡ฒ๐Ÿ‡ฒ Myanmar
Myanmarโ€™s shadow government, the National Unity Government (NUG), held an online meeting with the Arakan Army to persuade it to resume fighting against against Myanmar's military junta.

  • The Arakan Army has been fighting a civil war against Myanmar's military in Rakhine State since 2015, but agreed a ceasefire in late 2020.
  • Since last yearโ€™s coup, the NUG has been working to rally the various ethnic armed organisations in Myanmar by promising a federal democratic union once the current military regime is toppled.

๐Ÿ‡ป๐Ÿ‡ณ Vietnam
Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou travelled to Vietnam to meet with her Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc and discuss deepening bilateral ties.

  • In recent years, Athens and Hanoi have become good business partners: between 2020 and 2021, trade between the two countries rose by 33%.

  • Vietnam is playing the long game. It wants to become besties with Greece so it can then encourage Greece to lobby for the EU to relax its limits on the import of Vietnamese seafood.


North Korea is woefully unprepared for its Covid outbreak

Whatโ€™s going on: North Korea has been hit by an inevitable outbreak of Covid.

  • The government has imposed a nationwide lockdown and deployed the army to shore up what officials called an outbreak of โ€œfeverโ€ that has infected more than one million North Koreans.

Vaccination status: North Koreans have not been vaccinated against Covid-19 and do not have access to adequate healthcare, which makes the current Omicron outbreak particularly dangerous.

  • Boram Jang, East Asia Researcher for Amnesty, points out that Pyongyang โ€œhas rejected millions of doses of AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines offered by the WHO-led COVAX programโ€

  • Russia also offered vaccine donations but was turned down twice.

The dilemma: Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un must now choose between relaxing his regime's principle of โ€˜Jucheโ€™ (self-reliance) and accept international help, or face the prospect of hundreds of thousands of deaths that could lead to civil unrest.

  • According to Professor Yang Moo-jin, โ€œ[o]vercoming โ€˜the great upheavalโ€™ with help from what North Korea calls American imperialists and from South Korea wonโ€™t be tolerated because that goes against the dignity of its supreme leader.โ€

It gets worseโ€ฆ Prolonged lockdowns will hurt the countryโ€™s agricultural sector, which is still recovering from pandemic-related disruptions.

  • According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, 42.4% of North Koreans were undernourished between 2018-2020.

In short, itโ€™s very bad news for the North Korean people.


Today in history

Ten years ago today, Facebook held its initial public offering (IPO) which was the largest technology IPO in US history, raising $16B. That's double the amount of the second biggest tech IPO, which was Uber's $8B raise in 2019.

While founder Mark Zuckerberg may be mercilessly memed, he's still got a net worth of $72.9 billion so we don't feel even slightly bad. 

The excellent visualisation below is courtesy of the Visual Capitalist.

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