New Saudi King’s big challenges: Yemen, Iran and ISIS

(CNN)King Salman of Saudi Arabia has inherited the throne from his older brother and with it a host of pressing challenges in a turbulent region.

 

To the south, Yemen is in chaos. To the north, the militant group ISIS is wreaking havoc in Iraq and Syria. More broadly, Saudi Arabia remains locked in a regional cold war with Iran.

Within the kingdom’s borders, Salman has to decide how to pace sensitive reforms while keeping a lid on extremism.

The stakes are high in one of the leading regional powers in the Middle East and a key U.S. ally.

“Saudi Arabia has been critical to preserving some degree of regional stability in the face of a growing Iranian threat, during the rise of Islamic extremism that followed the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and during the new wave of upheavals that began in the spring of 2011,” Anthony H. Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a commentary this month.

 

Here are some of the main challenges Salman now faces:

 

Yemen

The new king has been plunged straight into the deep end with a fast-developing crisis on Saudi Arabia’s southern border.

The pro-Saudi government in Yemen has crumbled amid sectarian unrest. The country’s president and prime minister resigned Thursday night after a move by Shiite Houthi rebels to gain power in the capital in recent days.

Sunni majority Saudi Arabia, which provides energy and financial support to Yemen and shares a long border with it, is looking on with growing anxiety, fearful of the prospect of another Shiite-dominated state in the region.

“This will terrify the Saudis, just as the Shia uprising in Bahrain did,” said CNN intelligence and security analyst Bob Baer.

“Saudi Arabia, all these years, has avoided sending troops into Yemen. It’s a quagmire for the Saudis,” said Baer. “They’ve got a reinforced border and they’ve put a lot of troops down there. But, still, they are panicking.”

Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, told CNN on Wednesday that without Saudi support, “Yemen will become a failed state.”

It’s not far from that already.

The poorest country in the region, Yemen is home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which U.S. officials consider to be the most dangerous branch of the terrorist network, according to CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank.

 

Iran

The Yemen crisis feeds into a broader issue for Saudi Arabia: the growing influence of Iran in the region.

Yemeni officials have frequently accused Iran of providing financial support and weapons to the Houthis in an effort to control Yemen’s Red Sea coast, on one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

“That makes Saudi Arabia very uncomfortable,” said CNN global affairs analyst Bobby Ghosh. “Saudi Arabia, a Sunni majority country, regards Shia-run Iran as a mortal enemy. Both are facing each other off in a bizarre game of chess they’re playing across the Arab world.”

Tensions have simmered between Tehran and Riyadh at least as far back as Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. The conflict in Syria has been viewed as a proxy conflict between the two, with Iran supporting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and Saudi Arabia helping rebel groups.

But the rise of the ISIS extremists amid the relentless bloodshed of the Syrian war has complicated the equation.

“There are signs by the Saudis and the Iranians that it is in their interests to de-escalate tensions to confront ISIS,” said Harith Al-Qarawee, a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. “But it’s impossible to move from hostility to alliance quickly.

“Although the two sides realize that ISIS is a threat to some extent to both of them, they don’t think it is so big a threat as to move that fast to cooperation,” he said in November.

 

ISIS

The bloodthirsty seizure of large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq by ISIS has created a major headache in the region for the Saudis.

And the attempts of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to style himself as spiritual leader of Muslims presents a challenge to the Saudi monarchy, which is responsible for Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.

“The Saudis fear it as a potential domestic threat, turning Salafism into a revolutionary political ideology rather than the pro-regime bulwark it has usually been in Saudi Arabia,” says F. Gregory Gause, III, a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution in Doha, Qatar.

Saudi Arabia is considered to be a key U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS. One of Salman’s sons, Prince Khaled, was reportedly among the pilots who carried out the first airstrikes on ISIS positions in Syria last year.

But Salman also has some responsibility for Saudi Arabia’s backing of jihadist fighters in previous conflicts, according to David Andrew Weinberg, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“Salman played a significant role in the 1980s and 1990s gathering support in the royal family for mujahedeen holy warriors in places like Afghanistan, places like the Balkans,” Weinberg told CNN. “A number of these Afghan and Balkan veterans have in fact come back to Saudi Arabia and sown continued radicalism.”

The Saudi government, though, has denied ever providing support to ISIS, which is a splinter group of al Qaeda.

 

Internal reform

Salman’s predecessor, King Abdullah, is credited with managing to ride out the ructions of the Arab Spring that swept away other Arab rulers. But with a fast growing population in an unstable region, the royal family has no room for complacency.

“Saudi Arabia has faced, and will face, constant challenges in finding the pace of modernization and reform that pushes forward as fast as possible while retaining Saudi popular support, meeting Saudi Arabia’s unique religious and cultural needs, and ensuring that evolution will not turn into either regression or revolution,” said Cordesman.

“As events in other parts of the region since 2011 have shown all too clearly, it is easy to get things terribly wrong and very hard to keep them going right,” he wrote.

While some observers have applauded Abdullah’s cautious reforms, others say he moved too slowly.

“If you look at where Saudi Arabia is today, it hasn’t actually moved that far from when he assumed the throne in 2005,” Weinberg told CNN.

The monarchy needs to allow greater freedoms for women, improve the rights of the Shiite minority, modernize the education system and give greater powers to elected bodies, according to Cordesman.

With the recent sharp drop in oil prices, officials will have to chart a careful course for the economy. Saudi Arabia depends heavily on oil revenues to fund its government.

 

“Above all, the Saudi government needs to ensure that its rapidly growing population will have meaningful jobs and futures,” Cordesman said.

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Yemen instability reveals limits of U.S. counterterrorism strategy

When President Obama unveiled his strategy to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) last September, he pointed to Yemen as a prime example.

 

“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years,” Mr. Obama said.

 

Yet the collapse of the Yemeni government Thursday has raised doubts about the efficacy of a “light footprint” counterterrorism strategy, in no small part because the power vacuum creates an opening for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Gulf-based Islamic militant group that has been behind plots in the U.S. and other Western nations.

 

“In the short term this political crisis in Sana’a is a boon to al Qaeda because as long as the political crisis is going on, everybody’s attention and focus is there and that means the attention and focus of the Yemeni government is not on al Qaeda,” said CBS News national security contributor Michael Morell, a former deputy director of the CIA.

 

Experts say it’s still difficult to predict how the current political crisis will be resolved, which will have implications for the U.S. relationship with Yemen. President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who resigned Thursday, was publicly welcoming of American drone strikes as a way to target AQAP forces operating within his country.

 

Hadi quit his post, along with the prime minister and the rest of the cabinet, after coming under siege by Houthi rebels, who are believed to have support from Iran. They, too, don’t like AQAP – but they don’t like America, either.

 

“If the Houthis end up running the government or if the Houthis end up having a large say in government, I don’t know whether the Yemeni government will be as cooperative with the U.S.,” Morell said.

 

Ultimately, the U.S. has its best shot at fighting terrorism inside Yemen when the country is politically stable. And that, multiple experts say, is why America may need to broaden its focus beyond drone strikes and do more to help stem the social and economic turmoil that causes unrest and allows a group like AQAP to maintain a foothold. Yemen is one of the poorest nations in the entire Arab region and ranks 160 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index.

 

“All we’ve been doing is counterterrorism, and the issues are economic, and the issues are governance and the issues are all those things that drove the Arab Spring,” said Barbara Bodine, the former ambassador to Yemen and the director of Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. “We have been doing a lot of these things in these other areas but we’re not seen by the Yemenis as doing it and we need to be more visibly and aggressively involved in governance and development and really seen to be supporting a reasonable political outcome.”

 

  • Yemen’s president resigns amid rebel standoff
  • With Yemen collapse, is U.S. counterterrorism strategy in trouble?

 

“It’s not that we need to take our focus off of security it’s that we need to open our aperture to include these root causes,” Bodine told CBS News. “Otherwise we will never, ever get ahead of this.”

 

She was among the people who were surprised to hear Mr. Obama praise Yemen as a success story in his September 2014 speech since the country was already fragile and AQAP still maintained a firm foothold there. She is critical of the excessive focus on drone strikes as vast majority of the U.S. strategy there.

 

Christopher Swift, a Georgetown University professor of national security studies who has conducted field research in Yemen, told CBS News he believes the Obama administration’s light-footprint approach can work but that there is an overreliance on drone strikes and insufficient intelligence gathering and relationship building either by the U.S. or the Hadi government in the farther-flung places in the country where AQAP lives, operates, recruits and trains.

 

“We’ve been top down in terms of our light footprint approach instead of being top down and bottom up,” he said.

 

Morell called the drone strikes “a key aspect” of U.S. counterterrorism policy in Yemen and said it would be a “significant setback” if the new government that takes over does not allow them to continue. But drones aren’t everything, he said.

 

The current political crisis “is a shining example of how the stability of a country politically, economically, socially is critically important to our counterterrorism efforts, and that we have to pay as much attention to those issues as we do to actually countering the terrorists themselves,” he said.

 

The line between insufficient and over involvement in another country’s internal affairs has always proved a tricky one to navigate. Former President George W. Bush came under fire for the heavy U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and Mr. Obama has shown great reluctance to do anything that might be perceived as nation-building abroad, perhaps explaining his narrow focus on counterterrorism missions rather than reshaping civil society.

 

“Of course it’s true that long-term stability provides the best anecdote to terrorism, but the reality is that in complicated, dangerous and difficult countries like Yemen, the U.S. is not going to devote the resources to engage in nation-building and so first order national security issues necessarily take precedence,” CBS News National Security Analyst Juan Zarate said.

 

“Whatever our policy is in Yemen it’s not working and if the administration hoped that our counterterrorism strategy would lead to greater stability in that country it’s obviously wrong,” Zarate added. “It’s the wrong premise that aggressive counterterrorism strategy will catalyze broader stability and security in failing states like Yemen.”

 

In the near term, many experts agree that the restoration of a government in Yemen is the best short-term outcome, particularly given the uncertainty in the region created by the death of King Abdullah in neighboring Saudi Arabia.

 

“Until the Houthi decide that they can win more through a political process than through a military process you’re going to see Yemen be fundamentally unstable,” Swift said. One way of doing that, he suggested, would be for the U.S. to sanction former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his family members. Saleh agreed to step down from power in 2011 amid Arab Spring uprisings in his country and pressure from the U.S. and its other Gulf allies. He is believed to be aligned with the Houthi rebels.

 

“In many ways this is not just a counterterrorism issue, it’s not just the fight against extremism, but there are internal political issues in Yemen and the U.S. can’t have a stable counterterrorism, stable and reliable counterterrorism partner if these governments and these countries are so deeply divided,” Haim Malka, the deputy director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CBS News.

 

The Houthi might not publicly welcome U.S. drone strikes, but Swift says he believes they could give the Americans tacit permission to continue in private given their own fight against AQAP.

 

“But,” he said, “the problem that we’re having in Yemen right now with the Houthi is not a problem that U.S. policy was designed to solve…it’s a local problem that’s being driven by local politics”

 

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2015: A World Confused

 

Norms and even basic tenets of international behavior have been scattered left and right in recent years: the annexation of Crimea by Vladimir Putin’s little green men and his stealth invasion of Ukraine by Russian soldiers “on vacation” with their tanks; the Islamic State’s combination of medieval mores and modern capabilities to govern as well as fight; China’s on-again, off-again provocations in the East and South China Seas; and, in Syria, the ruin of a recently functional state with the world unable to stop the human and physical destruction.

 

Much of the blame has been laid at the United States’ door, but there is much more behind what’s happening than the U.S. government’s tactical mistakes or its unwillingness to commit ground troops to new fronts of combat.

 

In the Cold War, America’s role in the world was self-evident—to lead the fight against the Soviet Union and communism worldwide. Individual decisions weren’t obvious, and there were often agonizing tensions between that overriding goal and American values. But Americans largely shared a commitment to what they understood to be their country’s necessary purpose abroad.

 

With the collapse of the Soviet Union that clarity ended, and ever since, Americans have floundered in confusion. Is our purpose to maximize American power or to spread our democratic culture? Must the United States be the world’s policeman—even when we are not directly threatened? Should we stay at home and concentrate on our own shortcomings, or feel compelled to blanket the world in free-market capitalism?

 

The debate may be couched in terms of regime change vs. nation building, obeisance to international law vs. exceptionalism, unilateralism vs. multilateralism, or interests vs. values. But behind the varying terminology is the same search for a guideline or framework for deciding when and where to commit money, blood, or political capital. Without that, polls show, the American people are no clearer than their leaders have been about when the United States should act and when not, and just as liable to radically switch positions as events unfold.

 

Meanwhile, the world has become a much more difficult, intrusive place. Nearly all of its 7 billion people are now in one marketplace. The Westphalian black box, in which what happened within a state’s borders was no one else’s business, is gone. Borders are now porous to people, crime, information, money, weapons, pollution, and pandemics. In this cauldron, the lack of an agreed foreign policy bumper sticker to define the U.S. role—a successor to containment—is all the more acute.

 

Notably, the United States is not alone. China is ambivalent—even schizophrenic—about its role. It has abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s precept that it should lie low while accumulating economic strength. That much is clear: the world no longer hears about “peaceful rise.” But there is ample uncertainty too, including apparently in Beijing, about how far China’s intentions extend. Its military buildup continues at a fast clip (though from a very low base), and its actions in the East and South China Seas over small, disputed islands and offshore areas have been provocative enough to fuel anxiety throughout the region. Most unsettlingly, sometimes China demands to be treated like a major power with all the rights (though not the responsibilities) of one. On other occasions, almost in the same metaphorical breath, it morphs into a still weak, still poor (on a per capita basis) victim of colonial abuse. The two make a toxic mixture.

 

India has threats to counter from neighbors—Pakistan and China—and a massive task at home of reforming a government that nurtures corruption and paralyzes economic growth. Japan, still astonishingly unable to apologize for heinous behavior during World War II, provokes angry nationalism in China. That, in turn, feeds Japan’s own right wing and a growing debate over the country’s military posture.

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Fiery Cross Reef And Strategic Implications For Taiwan

 

According to a satellite imagery reported by IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is building an airstrip on of Fiery Cross Reef.

The United States, Philippines, and Vietnam have all voiced official objections to PRC activities. Unsurprisingly, PRC officials dismiss these criticisms, arguing that Fiery Cross Reef development is intended to improve the living and working conditions of search and rescue workers, and noting that many other claimants have airstrips in the Spratlys.

 

 

Notably, however, Taiwan, which generally does not challenge PRC activities in the South China Sea, also responded to the Chinese land reclamation activities by repeating its sovereignty claim over the disputed islands the South China Sea. This includes the four large archipelagos: the Pratas Islands, Paracel lands, Macclesfield Bank, and Spratly Islands. It also echoed the U.S. government’s latest call on all claimants to exercise self-restraint and help reduce tensions in the region. In addition, as pointed out by Lin Yu-fang, a Taiwanese legislator with the Kuomintang Party, the Chinese land reclamation activities pose a national security threat to Taiwan.

 

Fiery Cross Reef is one of six land features that the PRC occupied in 1988 and has been under its effective control over the past 26 years. In addition to the PRC, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam also claim territorial sovereignty over the reef. With the exception of two small rocks, the entire Fiery Cross Reef is covered by the water at high tide. Under international law, no states are allowed to claim sovereignty over geographical features that are submerged under water. In addition, under UNCLOS, land features that are surrounded by and above water at low tide but submerged at high tide are considered low-tide elevation. A low-tide elevation has no territorial sea of its own if it is wholly situated at a distance exceeding the breadth of territorial sea from the mainland or an island.

 

As a result of PRC reclamation activities, an artificial island was built on Fiery Cross Reef, with a size of 0.0081 square km (90 meters long and 90 meters wide). It was reported on November 23, 2014 that the size of the reef had reached to 1.37 square km and it could become larger.

 

Taiwan does not explicitly challenge the Chinese activities for three reasons. First, both Taipei and Beijing recognize that there is only one “China” – both mainland China and Taiwan belong to the same China, but both sides agree to interpret the meaning of that “one China” according to their own individual definition. Beijing’s South China Sea claims are based on Taipei’s. And because Taipei and Beijing claim that the Spratly Islands belong to “China,” it would be contradictory if Taiwan asks PRC to stop land reclamation activities on Fiery Cross Reef. Second, Taiwan is also undertaking a wharf facilities expansion project on Taiping Island (Itu Aba), which is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2015. The wharf can accommodate larger coast guard cutters and navy supply ships. The project also includes air navigation and landing systems and possible extension of the runway in the future. The construction work is to strengthen Taiwan’s defense capability and for the purpose of asking the parties concerned to include Taipei, one of the stakeholders, in regional security dialogues that discuss the South China Sea issue.

 

Third, the two “rocks”, located in the southwestern and northeastern edge of Fiery Cross Reef, while small and barren, are consistent with the Regime of Islands (Article 121 of UNCLOS), because they are “naturally formed area[s] of land, surrounded by water, which [are] above water at high tide.” As such, the two rocks of the reef are entitled to a 12 nautical mile territorial sea and 24 nautical mile contiguous zone. Whether or not the two rocks generate a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) or continental shelf depends on the interpretation of UNCLOS.

 

Although Taiwan does not directly challenge the Chinese land reclamation activities in the Spratlys, it does express great concern about the potential threat posed by land reclamation. In addition to the airstrip construction, it is believed that the reef could also be used as an electronic surveillance base. At the Xiangshan Forum, a national security dialogue held on November 20-22, 2014 in Beijing, Jin Zhirui of the Chinese Air Force Headquarters said: “There is a need for a base to support our radar system and intelligence-gathering activities” in the Spratly Islands.

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Land Reclamation: A South China Sea Game Changer

 

It is widely reported that China is conducting land reclamation on six of its seven occupied features in the Spratlys in the South China Sea, transforming the submerged reefs and rocks into full-pledged islands with airstrips, harbors and other military and civilian structures. Once reclamation works are completed, Fiery Cross Reef alone will be at least two square kilometres in size – as large as all other islands in the Spratlys are combined.

Chinese officials and scholars have cited several reasons to justify Beijing’s strategic move including a need for improved search and rescue capability in the South China Sea, a desire to improve the working and living conditions of Chinese nationals working there, and a need for a base to support China’s radar and intelligence system. Chinese representatives have complained on various occasions that it is unfair to point the finger at China as other SCS claimants have already engaged in reclamation activities and China is the last of claimants to have airstrips there.

 

 

Whatever the reasons are, Chinese unprecedented large-scale land reclamation works, once finished, will tremendously impact the dynamics of the claimants’ contest and major powers’ competition in the South China Sea.

 

Chinese fishing squads, which already enjoy financial, technical, and administrative support from central and local governments, can utilize facilities on the enlarged islands to extend the duration and scope of their fishing activities, which will most likely stoke tensions with other claimants as they intrude into the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia and court confrontation with those countries’ fishermen and law enforcement forces.

 

The enlarged islands with airstrips and harbors could arguably strengthen Chinese coercive capabilities, allowing China to quickly and extensively deploy its military, paramilitary and pseudo-civilian vessels and aircrafts to the central and southern parts of the South China Sea in case of confrontation with other claimants.

 

Jane’s Defence Weekly considers Chinese facilities on the enlarged islands as “purpose-built to coerce other claimants into relinquishing their claims and possessions.” It is unlikely that other claimants will ever relinquish their claims and possessions in the Spratlys; nevertheless, those facilities could arguably enhance Chinese capabilities to block the supply routes of Vietnam, Philippines to their controlled islands and rocks there. China’s attempts to block Philippine supplying routes to the Second Thomas Shoal in the first half of 2014 well illustrate this point.

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Assessing U.S. Policy In The South China Sea

 

A recent CNA Corporation report assessed current U.S. policy on the South China Sea and found it to be comprehensive and balanced. United States policy focuses on creating stability by exhorting all parties to follow the rules of international law.

It also explicitly defines how Washington would like conflicts to be solved. Moreover, it includes hard-power initiatives, such as rotationally stationing U.S. Navy warships in Singapore, the new military access agreement with the Philippines, the partial lifting of the arms embargo against Vietnam, and collaboration with Manila on improving its naval capacity. These are aimed at improving U.S. naval and air posture close to the South China Sea as well as redressing some of the capabilities imbalances between the Philippines, Vietnam, and China. Finally, it incorporates elements of traditional deterrence by affirming America’s security alliance with the Philippines.

 

 

On the other hand, U.S. policy implicitly acknowledges that the South China Sea is not the central strategic element in the overall U.S.-China relationship. The South China Sea was clearly not the centerpiece of the November 2014 Obama-Xi summit in Beijing: climate change, North Korea, Taiwan, trade and cyber issues were the focuses of this exchange. Our CNA study endorses this issue hierarchy, and argues that, in practice, U.S. South China Sea policy should not be overwhelmingly anti-Chinese. The United States should criticize Chinese behavior, along with the behavior of American friends and allies, when warranted. Finally, when it comes to the South China Sea, Washington should not bluff. In other words it should not announce policies it is not prepared to back-up.

 

The United States should reinforce its existing policy that international law is the basis for rules-based stability by issuing a comprehensive white paper on the various aspects of international law that are being abused by China and other claimants in the South China Sea. Because the focus on international law has been such a centerpiece of U.S. policy, this authoritative document should be signed by the Secretary of State and given appropriate publicity.

 

U.S. officials have publicly supported the Philippines’ request for arbitration, but if the arbitral tribunal rules that it does not have jurisdiction over this case, it will be a major setback and quash hopes that international law can be the basis for shaping the behavior of parties involved in South China Sea disputes. The Department of State should publicly highlight the importance of allowing the Philippines to have “its day in court,” for the sake of resolving the Philippines-PRC dispute and for the important precedent this arbitration may set.

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The Defense Authorization Act And China’s Maritime Moves

 

In a sign of growing congressional concern about China’s increased assertiveness in the South and East China seas, Congress has included a provision in the draft fiscal year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act requiring the Department of Defense to report to key congressional committees an assessment of China’s moves to affect the current state of affairs in these disputed seas.

The provision calls on the Defense Department, within 180 days, to provide an unclassified report to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee on China’s actions to change the status quo with regard to competing territorial and maritime claims in the two seas. Congress has also required the Pentagon to report on the implications of China’s moves for U.S. security interests in Asia.

 

 

This provision marks an increase in congressional interest in Asia’s maritime disputes by imposing concrete requirements on the administration. Previous congressional expressions of frustration about China’s actions took the form congressional hearings and non-binding resolutions such as the one passed by the House of Representatives on December 4. This resolution called for disputes in the South China Sea to be resolved by peaceful means using international law and through negotiating a code of conduct between China and the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

 

Vietnam and the Philippines, two countries in a dispute with China in the South China Sea, charge Beijing with taking provocative actions in recent years to enforce its territorial and maritime claims. China rejects these charges and says it is responding to unilateral steps by Vietnam and the Philippines to boost their claims and indicts the United States for meddling in the territorial disputes to undermine Beijing’s influence in the region. Washington insists it does not take sides in the disputes, but urges all parties to avoid unilateral and provocative actions to change the status quo.

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Leaders in Glass Countries Shouldn’t Throw Stones

 

Many people probably think the explosive events in Ferguson, Missouri, are a purely domestic issue and have nothing to do with American foreign policy or the U.S. position in the world. That position is understandable, insofar as these events are first and foremost about race relations inside the United States itself, which are largely a product of America’s particular history.

At a minimum, what has been happening in Ferguson (and the protests that broke out in New York and elsewhere following yesterday’s news that a grand jury decided not to indict the police officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner) reminds us that race remains a deeply problematic issue here — especially in the context of law enforcement and criminal justice. Not surprisingly, most commentators have focused on what this problem says about America and what the United States needs to do to address it.

 

Yet what has been happening in Ferguson — and in race relations in the United States more generally — does have some noteworthy foreign-policy dimensions. That is also unsurprising, because America’s internal condition inevitably affects its image in the world and the influence it can wield. When the U.S. economy is in trouble, it limits what the United States can do on the world stage. If the federal government is gridlocked or hamstrung by pointless political grandstanding (see under: Benghazi) the United States will act with less energy and wisdom abroad. And if minorities in the U.S. population are still marginalized, discriminated against, and treated as less-than-equal, then America’s full potential will be unrealized and its moral authority will be compromised in the eyes of many foreign observers.

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Russian Warships Bearing Down on Australia

 

FIRST ON 7: Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s threat to shirtfront Russian President Vladimir Putin is escalating dramatically.

7News can reveal a fleet of Russian warships is steaming towards Australia – a defiant show of force from the super power, ahead of this weekend’s G20 meeting of world leaders.

 

In diplomatic terms, it’s a worrying development for the Abbott Government after its attack on Russia’s role in the downing of MH17.

 

Leaving China this morning, Tony Abbott had precious little to say about his exchanges with Vladimir Putin at APEC.

 

However, the Prime Minister likely already knew of a developing security issue that could take his problems with President Putin to a whole new level.

 

7News has been told four Russian warships are bearing down on Australian waters, led by the guided missile Cruiser, Varyag, the flag ship of Russia’s Pacific fleet.

 

Also heading south is the destroyer, Marshal Shaposhnikov – it’s not short of firepower either.

 

They are being supported by the salvage tug Fotiy Krylov and supply tanker Boris Butoma.

 

The task group is in the Coral Sea South of Bougainville and appear on course for waters off Australia’s east coast.

 

All four could be sitting off Brisbane by Saturday, a prospect that has so stirred the government,

 

Defence has sent a P3 Orion Surveillance Aircraft to shadow the ships and an Anzac class frigate, HMAS Stuart to the Coral Sea.

 

“Defence is monitoring Russian naval vessels that are currently transiting through international waters to the north of Australia,” the Defence Force said in a statement.

 

“The movements of these vessels in entirely consistent with provisions under international law for military vessels to exercise freedom of navigation in international waters.”

 

“Questions regarding the vessels should be directed to Russian authorities.”

 

7News political editor Mark Riley reported that the ships arrived with no official notice from Moscow but that Australian intelligence services picked them up some days ago.

 

Russian presidents have had naval vessels sitting offshore of international meetings a couple of times in the past but certainly not four – and not without official notice to the host country.

 

The timing is unmistakable; Brisbane’s G20 this weekend. President Putin is a guest, though Australia has made few if any foreign leaders less welcome in the lead up to their visit.

 

A question now for the Abbott Government: might the Russian vessels seek a port visit? How would Australia respond?

 

Even in international waters off the Australian Coast, the ships are a headache for Prime Minister Abbott and right or wrong, will be read as a pointed comeback to the PM leading the charge in the MH17 case.

 

Prime Minister Abbott’s office says his fifteen minute one-on-one with the Russian President yesterday directly tackled Russia’s apparent links to the July MH17 atrocity – Abbott laying out intelligence that shows the missile launcher used to fire on the Malaysian passenger jet had been moved from Russian territory to Ukraine before the deadly strike.

 

But that got a swift response from the Russian embassy, its spokesman telling 7News the Kremlin “unconditionally refutes the accusation”

 

Suddenly the diplomatic temperature is rising ahead of Brisbane’s G-20.

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Trade Agreement Showdown at the APEC Meeting in Beijing: What Can We Expect?

 

The race is on between the United States and China to dominate the rules-setting game for trade by being the first to be able to announce plans for a free trade area in the Pacific Rim. China hopes to use its position as this year’s chair of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum to propose a feasibility study on a Free Trade Agreement for the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP), first mooted in 2006. In other words, negotiations towards an FTAAP would commence, for all practical purposes.

But if the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) can be concluded, or substantial and credible progress demonstrated so that an impressive announcement can be made at the APEC meeting in Beijing later this month, the US would steal the thunder from China. If such an announcement is not forthcoming or not credible, China will likely announce a ‘Beijing Road Map’ for a free trade agreement (FTA) of the Pacific Rim, building on APEC rather than the TPP. Billions of dollars in trade are at stake.

 

 

It will be difficult for leaders from the TPP countries to ignore a declaration endorsing a feasibility study for the FTAAP if they cannot offer an alternative. Reports on whether the US has been able to dissuade China from floating the proposal have been mixed. The US has succeeded in leaving the door slightly ajar for the TPP to play a future role by blocking reference to a deadline for completion of the FTAAP by 2025. Although deadlines can be missed, as the TPP itself demonstrates, setting one implies it is not just a vision but a plan bounded by a timeframe. The fear is that pursuing the FTAAP could derail the TPP by dispersing attention.

 

But will the FTAAP be any easier to conclude than the TPP? If too much diversity among its members (and therefore in in negotiating positions) is restricting progress in the TPP, then APEC will face an even greater challenge. APEC has more diversity than the TPP since it has an additional nine members.

 

But the large membership has its positives too. APEC may be the more inclusive choice to build an agreement in the Asia-Pacific because unlike the TPP, APEC includes China, and, unlike the ASEAN+6 Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), it also includes the US.

 

APEC’s goals are also not as elusive as the high standards set by the TPP. To some extent, the less ambitious nature of the proposal may offset the constraint imposed by greater diversity in membership.

 

Given the way that the TPP negotiations have struggled — and based on the information exposed by WikiLeaks — it appears that if the TPP is to be concluded anytime soon, it will likely be in a highly compromised form. If so, can it still form the basis of a Pacific Rim agreement? It boils down to a question of credibility, a bit too much of which may have been lost in the eagerness to reach an apparently premature conclusion. The improved prospects of President Barack Obama receiving fast-track authority from a Republican-controlled Senate will help but it is unlikely to make a big difference now.

 

What then can we expect?

APEC and its Beijing Road Map appears most likely, assuming that the one report in the Wall Street Journal last week suggesting China has been bullied into junking the proposal is misguided. Although APEC’s achievements since its inception in 1989 may be modest, its approach is generally viewed as being consistent with, if not mutually reinforcing of, the multilateral system and the WTO. This is mainly through its support for non-binding, unilateral actions in implementing its action plans. Although this approach has flexibility as its greatest appeal, the temptation of a free ride needs to be resisted. With this approach, it is all about the carrot — there is no stick.

 

An FTA for the Asia-Pacific, whether steered by the US or China, cannot be the end-game though. It would still mean a world trade system that is fragmented: the TPP, FTAAP, or RCEP would merely be the largest of the fragments. Looking further ahead, and short of resurrecting the WTO, unilaterally multilateralizing the preferences of the FTAAP and the many other FTAs is the only way to address the growing distortions and fragmentation. In a sense, it would involve moving towards the FTAAP by continuing the process preferred by APEC of joint but non-binding unilateral actions.

 

Since almost two-thirds of all trade liberalization has come from unilateral action, this approach offers hope. The political economy suggests that the resistance from FTA partners towards multilateralization decreases as the number of FTAs increase, due to preference erosion. It is not only the sensible way forward, but a practical one too.

 

Jayant Menon is lead economist at the Office of Regional Economic Integration, Asian Development Bank, and adjunct fellow at the Arndt-Corden Department of Economics, at the Australian National University. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the ADB, its Board of Governors or the governments they represent.

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