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Quartz Weekend Brief—China v Japan, streaming music wars, Putin’s bubble, operatic racism

Good morning, Quartz readers!

While the the kinetic conflict in Ukraine and the Middle East have dominated this week’s news, a more subtle contest, between China and Japan, has been playing out on an unlikely stage: Latin America. The leaders of Asia’s two largest economies have been hopping across the region, seeking or cementing political alliances as well as new business deals.

Barely had Chinese president Xi Jinping headed home from a week-long trip to Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and Cuba, when Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe started his 11-day swing, which will take in Mexico, Trinidad & Tobago, Colombia, Chile and Brazil.

The Chinese media quickly declared Xi’s visit a grand success. The People’s Daily said it “not only fostered closer economic ties, but also led to many commercial contracts.” Expect similar triumphant proclamations from the Japanese media at the end of Abe’s trip.

While both Japan and China want stronger economic ties to a region rich in resources, they are also keen to broaden the nature of their relationships. Xi wants China to be seen as a major player in world affairs, and that means more than striking business deals. Abe is seeking international support for Japan’s long-standing ambition of joining the UN Security Council. And although Latin America is an ocean away from the main theater of Sino-Japanese friction, the East China Sea, each leader is seeking sympathetic ears for his complaints about the other.

For Latin American nations, the heightened attention from the world’s second and third-largest economies is mostly welcome. But in political and territorial disputes, nobody really wants to pick sides between Beijing and Tokyo. Business deals will receive enthusiasm and fanfare; for the rest, polite nodding is the order of the day.—Bobby Ghosh

Five things on Quartz we especially liked

Who will win the streaming music wars? Will Spotify beat Pandora? Will Deezer surge ahead? Or will they all be swallowed up or steamrollered by a loss-leading music division of Apple, Amazon or Google? John McDuling examines the dynamics of a fragmented industry where only one or two big winners are likely to remain.

How to deal with opera’s inherent racism. A recent Seattle production of The Mikado is eliciting anger over “yellowface,” meaning white performers made up to look Japanese. Gwynn Guilford explores the history of the ethnic parodies that underpin many operas—and some ideas about how directors can treat them in a more modern way.

Ways for the West to put pressure on Russia. Gazprom, Russia’s gas monopoly, is losing its dominance as the state’s foreign-policy tool, but sanctions aimed at it could still bring pressure to bear, Steve LeVine writes. And Tim Fernholz explains how the Netherlands, as one of the chief offshore financial centers for Russian money, could do a little squeezing of its own.

Why Google will remain the king of search. The company’s share of US search queries continues to inch up, and its competitors are far behind. But as Dan Frommer explains, search is such a huge business that it makes more sense to start smaller search engines for specific niches than challenge Google head-on.

The US catches some of the world’s best salmon but eats some of the worst. Why are Americans eating bland, imported, farmed salmon when they could be feasting on the superb wild catches from their own rivers? Gwynn Guilford teases apart a paradox that’s the result of a curious mix of taste and economic history.

Five things elsewhere that made us smarter

A peek inside Putin’s bubble. Over several years of reporting, Ben Judah spoke with a wide range of current and former members of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, assembling an engrossing, impressionistic account of the inscrutable Russian president’s daily routine for Newsweek. He paints a picture largely of monotony, paranoia, and isolation. “There are no stories of extravagance: only of loneliness.”

Le tour de malaise. In Der Spiegel, Alexander Smoltczyk traces the route of this year’s Tour de France, but cycling is not on his mind. He is on the road to chronicle the “new sick man of Europe,” speaking with anyone he bumps into about the “deep gloom” that seems to be gripping France. “The state is sick, the economy is sick, its education is sick and it is sick from an excessively glorified past that won’t go away,” says one particularly disgruntled Frenchman.

How John Kerry’s Middle East peace plan crumbled. This impressively detailed account of a year of diplomacy from Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon in the New Republic is a microcosm of every set of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks ever held, and shows the distrust, back-stabbing and communication breakdowns that have caused them to run aground.

Seeing war through food. National-security writer John Little interviews celebrity chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain, who has made an art of reporting on the cuisine of conflict zones. “Most people seem to be pretty nice—basically good people doing the best they can,” Bourdain says. “There is rarely, however, a neat takeaway. You have to learn to exercise a certain moral relativity.”

Where restaurant reservations come from. From, umm… the need to book a restaurant, right? The seemingly silly question has a much more complicated answer, discovers Alexis Madrigal in the Atlantic—probably stemming from the 19th century, when private rooms in restaurants were the place unmarried men and women could meet without offending public decency.

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, war recipes, and Putin anecdotes to hi@qz.com. You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day.

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