Daily Memo: Arab Governments Look East, Scotland Pushes Back

Arab governments look east. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan has confirmed that his country will host a summit between Arab nations and China to explore strategic partnership opportunities in a number of areas. Arab governments have been warming up to Beijing of late. On Monday, the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum held a ministerial meeting during which future cooperation and responses to the coronavirus pandemic were discussed, and over the course of the COVID-19 outbreak, China has supplied eight Arab countries with medical equipment, medical personnel and researchers. Saudi Arabia and China also signed a $265 million deal to expand the kingdom’s COVID-19 testing capacity. But with the U.S. presence in the region waning, an oil price crisis emerging and a global recession looming, Arab countries are looking to China for more help on more than just the COVID-19 crisis; they hope to cooperate with Beijing on security matters as well as the Belt and Road Initiative to help diversify their economies. Scotland pushes back. Scotland and the United Kingdom appear to be on the edge of a constitutional standoff. Michael Russell, Scotland’s Cabinet secretary for constitutional affairs, has threatened to defy a Westminster bill that would impose the […]

The Thucydides Trap and the Rise and Fall of Great Powers

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Roughly 2,400 years ago, Thucydides, a Greek historian and author of “History of the Peloponnesian War,” expressed a view that resonates in strategic thinking to...

Daily Memo: New Details on Hong Kong’s Security Law

Hong Kong security law details. The government in Hong Kong released more details on the new national security law intended to crack down on dissent. The law reduces judicial oversight restricting police surveillance, permits some police searches in the absence of a warrant, and permits officers to confiscate travel documents to prevent suspects from leaving Hong Kong. It also requires social media sites and internet service providers to remove messages considered a threat to national security and to provide user data, or face fines of up to 100,000 Hong Kong dollars ($12,903) and jail time of up to six months. In response, a number of digital platforms, such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram, said they would deny law enforcement requests for user data, and TikTok, which is owned by China-based ByteDance, announced it would cease operations in Hong Kong in the coming days. Russia’s sluggish recovery. The share of Russians with average monthly income below 15,000 rubles ($210) has grown to 44.6 percent from 38.1 percent amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to the results of a June survey conducted by the Rosgosstrakh life insurance company and the Perspektiva research and technology center. For reference, the monthly minimum wage in Russia […]

Russia’s Arctic Ambitions

The Russian government is reigniting its push into the Arctic. Despite the challenging global economic environment, the Kremlin plans to build at least five new icebreakers, which, according to Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, will be used to further develop the Northern Sea Route across Russia’s Arctic coast. On Monday, Russia announced that it had started construction on the Leader project, the world’s most powerful nuclear-powered icebreaker, at the Zvezda shipyard in the Far East region. According to the government, the project is worth the expense because it will help make the Northern Sea Route accessible year-round and tap into the growing interest in the new transit corridor between Europe and Asia. But the Kremlin’s own interest in the Arctic is not only a result of the potential economic benefits; it’s also a matter of securing Russia’s eastern borders. The Eastern Front Russia has long concentrated its security efforts on its western front. The main threats to Russia’s territorial integrity have historically emanated from there, and so it has spent considerable time and resources building up its Baltic and Black Sea fleets. But Moscow is increasingly focusing on its eastern frontier, which is facing growing threats from several sources, some of […]

Daily Memo: South Korea Wants to Resume Nuclear Talks

North Korea has nothing to say to the U.S. Efforts are underway for the possible resumption of denuclearization talks between North Korea and the United States. South Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator on Friday met separately with the top Chinese and Russian envoys to Seoul to discuss the situation on the Peninsula. On Monday, the South’s nominee for unification minister said North-South dialogue should continue under any circumstances. And the South Korean Foreign Ministry confirmed that Stephen Biegun, the U.S. envoy for North Korea, will arrive in Seoul on Tuesday to discuss the stalled nuclear talks with his South Korean counterpart and other members of the South Korean Foreign Ministry. Biegun will then head to Tokyo for similar discussions. These developments suggest South Korean President Moon Jae-in is still intent on holding another round of U.S.-North Korean talks in October, just ahead of U.S. elections. But Moon will have his work cut out for him: North Korea’s first vice foreign minister said Saturday that Pyongyang sees no need to meet with U.S. officials and that the North already had a strategic timetable designed to contain long-term threats from the United States. Europe’s mixed signals. With less than two weeks to go […]

Iraq, Caught Between a Neighbor and a Superpower

Late in the evening of June 16, Iraqi counterterrorism forces stormed the headquarters of Kataib Hezbollah, a pro-Iran militia, arresting 14 insurgents and confiscating three Katyusha rocket launchers suspected of being part of a planned attack on U.S. forces. After three months of tough talk and promised reform, Iraq’s newly minted prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, had done what his predecessors either could not or would not: crack down on local Iraqi militias loyal to Iran. This was seen as a crucial first step toward eliminating Iran’s foothold within Iraq’s security infrastructure, a move intended to satisfy long-term U.S. demands (especially as Washington has begun negotiating with Iraq over the future status of U.S.-led coalition forces in the country). Some Iraqi officials even characterized the raid as a joint Iraq-U.S. triumph, asserting that three Kataib Hezbollah leaders had been handed over to the U.S. military. (The spokesman for the U.S. coalition denied this.) But emerging details have burst this bubble. For example, Iraqi forces transferred custody of the Kataib Hezbollah detainees to another pro-Iran militia, the Popular Mobilization Forces, which reside under the umbrella of the Iraqi Security Forces. The PMF released the suspects 13 days later, after an Iraqi court […]

Daily Memo: Russian Constitutional Reforms, Korean Compromises

Russian reforms. In a seven-day referendum that ended on Wednesday, 77.9 percent of Russians voted to approve more than 200 amendments to the constitution, one of which would allow President Vladimir Putin to run for reelection in 2024. According to Russian daily Kommersant, the turnout was 68 percent, more than 10 percentage points higher than the turnout for the 1993 constitution. The highest turnout and vote of approval were in Chechnya, where 97.9 percent of voters were in favor of the changes and 95.1 percent of people cast a ballot. The regions of Tuva (96.8 percent approval), Crimea (90.1 percent), Dagestan (89.2 percent) and the Yamalo-Nenets District (89.2 percent) had the next highest levels of support. The Nenets Autonomous Region was the only region where the majority of Russians voted against the amendments (55.3 percent). Yakutia (40.7 percent disapproval) and Kamchatka (37.2 percent) regions also had high votes against the reforms. On the last day of the vote, uncoordinated protests against the changes took place in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Blagoveshchensk, Khanty-Mansiysk, Nizhny Novgorod, Novosibirsk and other cities. The demonstrations were fairly small, however; the biggest was in Moscow with 400 participants. Korean compromises. South Korean President Moon Jae-in wants U.S. […]

Daily Memo: Turkey at the Center of NATO Frictions

NATO revolves around Turkey. After a seven-month standoff, Turkey finally lifted its veto and allowed the alliance to approve a defense plan for Poland and the Baltic states. Reuters reported in November 2019 that Turkey was blocking the plan in order to pressure its NATO allies to recognize the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, as a terrorist group. (A number of NATO states, including the U.S., have partnered with the YPG in Syria and thus refused to back down.) The operational outline of the defense plan for the bloc’s eastern frontier is classified, but it reportedly includes bulking up air defenses and speeding up the deployment of allied ground forces in the event of conflict with Russia. But frictions between Turkey and other NATO member states are far from over. The latest disagreement centers on the Mediterranean Sea. According to Turkey’s ambassador to France, the French informed the Turks and NATO that they are suspending their involvement in NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian. France accused Turkey last month of behaving aggressively toward a French warship, the frigate Courbet, as it was participating in the alliance’s maritime security operation. The Turkish ambassador said Paris’ withdrawal came after a NATO investigation into […]

Beijing’s Big Bet in Hong Kong

When Beijing retook control of Hong Kong from the British 23 years ago, the understanding was that Hong Kong would maintain a high degree of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework for a period of 50 years. On Tuesday, the Communist Party of China declared that that time was up. And it did so with striking ease. There was no bloody Tiananmen-style showdown between the army and pro-democracy protesters; no tanks inside Victoria Park. Beijing merely had its rubber-stamp legislature unanimously approve a sweeping national security law – one first announced just a month ago and never released for public comment – bypassing the Hong Kong legislature in violation of the city’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law. The move presages a dramatic deterioration of political freedoms in Hong Kong. The security law, which will be enforced by separate courts and security forces effectively controlled by Beijing, is conspicuously broad, meaning things like peaceful pro-democracy protests, anti-CPC editorials and school curricula that don’t toe the party line could realistically be defined as “separatism, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference.” At minimum, uncertainty about how the law will be enforced will have a chilling effect on civil society in Hong […]

Daily Memo: One Country, One System?

“One country, two systems” circles the drain. On Tuesday, China’s National People’s Congress voted unanimously to pass the contentious new Hong Kong national security legislation. President Xi Jinping reportedly signed the bill, which has still not been made public but is expected to be written in a way that would effectively outlaw pro-democracy protests and anti-Communist Party media, into law shortly thereafter. This comes two days after Hong Kong police detained at least 53 people — some of them reportedly bystanders — at a rally opposing the law, and a day before Hong Kong’s annual July 1 mass pro-democracy march (which Hong Kong police have banned, conveniently on the grounds of COVID-19). The pro-democracy community in Hong Kong is understandably freaking out. For example, Demosisto, a prominent advocacy group behind some of the past year’s protests, announced that it would disband. Several other civil society groups have announced similar moves. Activists are also reportedly scrambling to delete social media posts that could prove incriminating. This speaks to a core goal of the law: to get Hong Kongers to start censoring themselves and think twice before criticizing the Chinese Communist Party, effectively allowing Beijing to stifle dissent without having to take […]

The ‘Spies and Commandos’ of Afghanistan

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The media exploded late last week with reports that Russia had paid the Taliban bounties to kill U.S. and Afghan troops. The plot was...

Daily Memo: Contests for Influence in Iraq and the South China Sea

Iran’s diminished influence. Iranian influence in Iraq suffered a major blow after Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi directed a raid last week on a Kataib Hezbollah post, leading to the arrest of over a dozen fighters and the confiscation of weapons systems. Several Iran-backed militias have accused the U.S. and Iraq of fomenting division, but the Iranian government itself has been careful not to publicly incite further tensions with Iraq. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, for example, said that the raid was an internal Iraqi affair and that Iran has no comment. At the same time, Tehran issued arrest warrants for U.S. President Donald Trump and 30 other U.S. officials for their involvement in the Jan. 3 killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Iraq. It also asked Interpol to honor the warrants. The Iranian government knows nothing will come of this, but it intends for the request to serve as a warning against U.S. interference in Iraq. The COVID-19 crisis and U.S. sanctions continue to hamper Iran’s ability to finance its militias and political proxies in Iraq. After billions of dollars in Iranian central bank assets were frozen under U.S. sanctions and the Iranian rial fell to its lowest level […]