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Council on Foreign Relations Daily News Brief
February 20, 2013

Top of the Agenda

Top of the Agenda: Japan Reports Record Trade Deficit

Japan's trade deficit widened to a record 1.63 trillion yen ($17.4 billion) in January as energy imports jumped (FT), highlighting the risk of reviving the country's export industry through currency-weakening policies without broader economic reforms. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to seek help from Washington during a visit later this week, when he will appeal to U.S. President Barack Obama for greater access (Bloomberg) to shale gas exports as the world's third-largest economy struggles with increasing energy costs after its 2011 nuclear disaster.


"A weakening in Japan's currency over the past few months has helped boost exports by making its products more price competitive overseas. But it has also inflated the value of resource-scarce Japan's imports of crude oil and other commodities, which offset a recovery in demand for Japanese-made vehicles and machinery," writes Elaine Kurtenbach for the AP.

"The declared goals are ostensibly domestic in scope, but the knock-on effect on the yen has been greeted with glee by Japanese exporters such as Toyota. Japanese officials have publicly said the yen could comfortably slide further still," writes Tom Burgis for the Financial Times.

"When monetary operating systems differ, one country's unorthodox monetary policy is another's exchange rate intervention. For example, it appears unacceptable in any circumstance for Japan to buy foreign currency bonds for yen, while at the same time it's ok for countries to buy mortgage backed securities in their own currency," writes CFR's Robert Kahn.



South Korea, U.S. to Hold Defense Talks

South Korea and the United States will hold defense talks later this week in Washington to explore measures (Yonhap) against growing nuclear threats from North Korea in light of its third atomic test. South Korean military leaders have said they considered destroying the North's nuclear facilities.

CFR's Paul Stares highlights three things to know about the test and its implications for nuclear nonproliferation in this video.



Reports of Senior Taliban Commander Arrest

Reports surfaced that Afghan forces arrested senior Pakistani Taliban commander Maulvi Faqir Muhammad (TheNews) in Nangarhar province. The Pakistani Taliban neither rejected nor confirmed the arrest of their top commander.

CFR takes a look at Pakistan's new generation of terrorists in this Backgrounder.

SRI LANKA: Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Colombo amid tensions (AFP) after a Sri Lankan nanny convicted of murder was beheaded in the kingdom.



Tunisian PM Resigns

Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali resigned after failing to reach an agreement (al-Arabiya) on forming a new government in response to the political crisis sparked by the killing of opposition leader Chokri Belaid. Jebali has said he would quit if his Islamist Ennahda party did not back his plan for a cabinet of technocrats.

SAUDI ARABIA: Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah swore in thirty women to the previously all-male Shura Council (BBC), although critics say the move is only symbolic, as the council cannot make laws.



France Pullout From Mali Could Begin in Weeks

France's defense minister said French troops will begin pulling out (AP) of Mali within weeks, despite new clashes and challenges in battling al-Qaeda-linked militants who seized control of the north last year. One French soldier has died so far in the operation.

CAMEROON: Seven French nationals have been abducted in Cameroon (France24) by armed men, suspected to be linked to Boko Haram, near the border with Nigeria. No group has yet claimed responsibility.

CFR's John Campbell comments on the string of kidnappings in Western Africa by Boko Haram in this blog post.



Bulgarian Government Steps Down

Bulgaria's government resigned on Wednesday after nationwide violent protests (Reuters) against high power prices in the EU's poorest state, which has seen wage and pension freezes and tax hikes. Prime Minister Boiko Borisov's rightist party will not take part in talks to form a new government.

RUSSIA: Russia's foreign minister called for an end to the nearly two-year crisis in Syria on Wednesday after a meeting with the Arab League in Moscow, pushing to broker talks (VOA).



Correa Looks to Control Media

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, who won a swift reelection Sunday, vowed to press ahead with laws (MercoPress) that control the media and redistribute land to the poor. He is also expected to pass a new mining law that would ease investment terms on a deal with a Canadian mining company.

CUBA: Seven U.S. lawmakers met Cuba's foreign minister in an effort to improve relations (BBC) on a trip that will also include a visit to see Alan Gross, a U.S. contractor whose arrest in Cuba in 2009 stalled diplomatic efforts.



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