Daily Memo: Iranian Drones, Indian Warships, Japanese Elections

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Doing deals and downing drones. The U.S. on Thursday said it shot down an Iranian drone that had come within a kilometer (0.6 miles) of the USS Boxer, a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, as it was transiting through international waters in the Strait of Hormuz. Tehran denied the claim, with Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi suggesting the U.S. may have shot down its own drone by mistake. Earlier in the day, Iran claimed to have seized a Panamanian-flagged vessel it said was smuggling one million liters (264,000 gallons) of oil. Meanwhile, on a visit to the U.N. in New York, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif said Tehran had made a “substantial” offer to the Trump administration, with Tehran accepting permanent, enhanced inspections of its nuclear program, in return for the permanent lifting of U.S. sanctions. Notably, the foreign minister also said he had met with unnamed U.S. lawmakers, raising the prospect that some sort of back-channel discussions may already be taking place.

India rejects U.S. coalition. The fleet of Indian warships that have been escorting Indian-flagged tankers through the Persian Gulf for the past month will remain, but India will not formally join the United States’ proposed coalition to secure the turbulent waters, unnamed Indian officials told Reuters on Thursday. Notably, though, the Indian navy has reportedly still been coordinating closely with the U.S. in the waters, with Indian warships regularly being refueled by U.S. tankers. This illustrates the complicated nature of India’s emerging role as a regional partner in multinational efforts to deter potential maritime threats in both the Middle East and Indo-Pacific. On one hand, India is famously wary of overtly aligning itself with any outside power, and its interests diverge quite a bit with ostensible allies like the U.S., Japan and Australia. On the other, India has quietly been developing capabilities and bilateral mechanisms to play robust roles in areas where its interests do align with the U.S. and its allies, particularly the maritime sphere.

Japan votes. Japan’s Upper House elections will take place Sunday, and nearly all indications suggest the ruling coalition, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, will hold on to its supermajority. Such a result would give Abe crucial political capital at a time when he has no shortage of politically sensitive issues on which to spend it. Tokyo’s spat with Seoul, for example, is wreaking havoc on global microchip supply chains and threatening to scupper a three-year-old intelligence-sharing pact between the two. Washington, meanwhile, is aiming to finalize a modest trade deal with Tokyo by September, according to Reuters – something that may force Abe to take on the politically powerful agricultural sector. Japanese exports are tumbling. Then there’s Abe’s eternal quest to revise the war-renouncing Article 9 of Japan’s pacifist constitution, which has the potential to constrain, or at least complicate, Japan’s remilitarization and ability to deploy its robust fleet of minesweepers to take part in multinational operations in hot spots like the Persian Gulf. Yet, Abe’s failure to push through Article 9 revisions underscores the reality that having a supermajority in Parliament isn’t the same thing as having broad backing for his ambitious aims.

U.S.-China trade talks sputtering. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer held phone talks with their Chinese counterparts on Thursday. But according to Mnuchin, the two sides haven’t even gotten to the point where they can resume face-to-face negotiations. According to Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal, both sides have hardened their positions so much so that it’s become difficult to agree even on a starting point – specifically, whether to continue haggling over the finer details of the draft agreement that was in the works until May or start from scratch. Beijing has publicly demanded that any deal include realistic targets for Chinese purchases of U.S. goods and the full removal of tariffs. The U.S. is loath to do the latter, lest it give up leverage it needs to ensure implementation of a deal. It has ample wiggle room on the former. China, of course, also wants the U.S. to lift its ban on sales of U.S.-made components to tech giant Huawei. It’s unclear if Beijing is making this a precondition for resumed talks. Either way, the Trump administration is still in the process of trying to formulate a policy that simultaneously addresses U.S. national security vulnerabilities, maximizes its leverage in the trade talks, and avoids doing unnecessary damage to the commercial interests of U.S. firms. And it’s under conflicting pressures from Congress, which may pass legislation preventing Trump from lifting the ban, and those in the U.S. tech sector who want to hold on to at least some of their lucrative business with Huawei.

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