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Daily Memo: Elections in Turkey, Confidence in Putin, Lots of Problems in China

All the news worth knowing today.

|June 25, 2018

By Jacob L. Shapiro

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is Turkey’s first president – at least, that is, in the next political system granting a Turkish president increased powers. He won more than 50 percent of the vote, obviating the need for a second-round runoff, and his ruling Justice and Development Party won a majority of seats in parliament. Erdogan’s victory bodes well for stability in the short term – his main rival has conceded defeat, noting that voting “irregularities” would not have affected the outcome of the election. But now that the drama is over, Erdogan has to fix the economy and manage a slowly increasing military presence in Syria and Iraq.

Chinese police broke up a People’s Liberation Army protest. The protest, a five-day affair in Jiangsu province, began after an army veteran was beaten by security guards in the city of Zhenjiang. According to a Radio Free Asia report, army veterans from neighboring provinces joined the protests. (Radio Free Asia is admittedly a questionable source but in this instance provided video footage.) Only yesterday did police break up the protest, according to a report from the South China Morning Post. These kinds of protests happen from time to time, but the PLA is the backbone of the Communist Party of China’s rule, and though President Xi Jinping has so far appeared to be the unquestioned commander-in-chief, any sign that he is not should be taken seriously.

As if that weren’t enough, China is contending with several challenges to its foreign policy agenda. The first and most important is China’s relationship with the United States. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is traveling to China to have a “conversation” – a polite way of saying the U.S. is sending a major official to relay an important message to Beijing. As Mattis was in transit, two Chinese government sources said that Beijing would not target U.S. companies operating in China in retaliation against U.S. tariffs – a surprising development, considering that is one of China’s strongest countermeasures against U.S. protectionism. China may be trying to ease tensions while saving face.

China has its hands full in other areas too. Chinese relations with the Philippines are at a two-year low over the Scarborough Shoal issue. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s move to align Manila with China is now causing trouble for his government at home, creating a push to shore up the Philippine navy. Protests erupted over the weekend in Vietnam against the establishment of special economic zones in which Chinese companies could get long-term leases with favorable conditions. Meanwhile, the Australian government is now seeking a formal security treaty with Vanuatu. This strategically located South Pacific island nation made waves earlier in the year when reports emerged that China was seeking to build a military base there. Those reports were never substantiated, but Australia’s recent rhetorical clashes with China, followed by this diplomatic outreach, suggest something was afoot and that Canberra is moving quickly in response.

In what is beginning to feel like a never-ending story, Iran is once again in the throes of a currency crisis. The Iranian rial has plunged to a record low against the U.S. dollar. Shopping centers in Tehran, including the Grand Bazaar, closed in protest of “market stagnation and the devaluation of national currency.” (That that quote comes not from opposition news sites but from state-friendly Fars news agency itself should trouble the government.) Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was seen visiting a resort in northern Tehran and was panned for it accordingly. Iran has been in a low-level economic crisis since protests around the country in January, and while these latest protests may just be signs of continued simmering, the fact that the government is taking heat in mainstream Iranian press is an ominous sign.

Speaking of governments facing key challenges, Russian confidence in President Vladimir Putin has tumbled to a four-year low, according to state-run polling company VTsIOM. The confidence rating is now at 42 percent and the approval rating is at 72 percent. The drop is due to an issue we have been following for a while: pension reform. No reforms have even yet been passed, and Putin’s spokesperson has made a point of insisting that Putin has not yet decided the correct course of action. But as the World Cup provides a welcome distraction, the Kremlin is touching the third rail of Russian politics, and the contours of a backlash are becoming palpable. Bread and circuses is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Russia will now have to see how far just circuses can take it.

Two reports have concluded that Mexico’s police are corrupt and unable to maintain the rule of law. As Mexico heads into elections on July 1, more than 100 politicians have been assassinated. The most recent is a mayoral candidate in the small city of Ocampo. In response, Mexican federal authorities detained the town’s entire 27-person police force, as well as the local public security secretary. These kinds of stories are unfortunately becoming commonplace, but even more disturbing is a report by the Executive Secretary of the National Public Security System, which estimated that there was a police shortfall of 95,900 officers (a shortfall owed in part to officers’ unreliability) and that it would take at least three and a half years to fill the gaps. From both a short- and long-term perspective, this does not bode well for political stability in Mexico.

Last but not least, the European Union is struggling to resolve two of its biggest issues: migration and expansion. Yesterday, a select group of European officials held a small summit to discuss migration, and while Italy and others came out of the meeting somewhat optimistic, other EU countries such as the uninvited members of the Visegrad Group – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – objected to the fact that decisions were being discussed without them. Embattled German Chancellor Angela Merkel went so far as to say that decisions had to be made “without always having to wait for all 28 [EU member states]” – a strikingly blunt assessment of the challenges EU consensus requirements impose on any potential political changes. Meanwhile, even the EU heavyweights attempting to find a compromise on migration cannot agree on how the EU should approach expansion in the Balkans, specifically with Albania and North Macedonia (the country formerly known as simply Macedonia). Right now, Germany leads the pro camp, while France and the Netherlands are holding things up. Usually, European affairs saunter into summer vacation, but this European summer is shaping up to be truly eventful.

Honorable mention:

  • The president of Uzbekistan says “very difficult” times are ahead for his country in the next 2-4 years. The country has been remarkably stable since a recent power transfer.
  • South Korea’s prime minister confirmed that talks are ongoing to get North Korea to pull back some of its artillery from the demilitarized zone – a substantial step forward on what for South Korea may be the biggest obstacle toward dealing with the North.
  • Belarus has invited France to increase investment in the country. Trade is up this year by 13 percent and increased in 2017 by 28 percent. Any signal Belarus is reaching out to the West is important.
  • India’s home minister is on a three-day visit to Mongolia. Which sort of makes sense: China makes a play for Nepal, India makes a play for Mongolia. The neutrality of Mongolia is a major facet of China-Russia relations. How far India can push in here is a useful gauge of Indian strengths and intentions.
  • India and the U.S. are reportedly preparing to sign two more bilateral military pacts that, among other things, would give India greater access to more advanced U.S. military technologies and platforms.