Daily Memo: South China Sea Scuffles, Brexit Threats, Iran Talks

All the news worth knowing today.


Claims in the South China Sea. Over the past couple months, we’ve periodically seen unconfirmed reports hinting at a quiet standoff involving Chinese maritime forces around Malaysian and Vietnamese oil and gas operations in the South China Sea. A new report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative paints a more complete picture. In May, at least one Chinese coast guard vessel (and possibly a second the size of a frigate) reportedly harassed supply ships servicing drilling operations off the coast of Malaysia’s Sarawak state. In mid-June, the Chinese vessel popped up off the Vietnamese coast to harass supply ships servicing a Japanese oil rig leased by Russian state oil firm Rosneft for much of the next month. On July 3, in a further show of Beijing’s displeasure with the drilling, a Chinese geological survey ship arrived in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone to begin exploration activities that are reportedly still ongoing, with a flotilla of coast guard and maritime militia escorts preventing Vietnamese intervention. On Tuesday, Hanoi effectively confirmed the reports in a characteristically circumspect statement, condemning “activities undertaken by foreign parties in Vietnamese waters.” (China’s Foreign Ministry was more direct, saying on Wednesday that Vietnam should respect Chinese sovereignty over the waters.) Hanoi’s wariness of calling out China by name stems from its memories of a 2014 incident, when the China National Offshore Oil Corporation moved a giant drilling platform into oil-rich Vietnamese waters, sparking attacks on Chinese (and, mistakenly, Taiwanese) businesses in the country and exposing deep divides over how to handle China among Vietnam’s Communist Party leadership. In 2017 and 2018, Vietnam pulled the plug on major drilling projects with Repsol to avoid another standoff with Beijing. As with its repeated moves to thwart exploration off the Philippine coast, asserting ownership over oil and gas isn’t Beijing’s main goal here. Rather, it is to force its neighbors to effectively recognize Chinese territorial claims and, eventually, conclude that it’s in their best interests to start cooperating on Chinese terms.

Johnson’s empty threat. Advisers of Boris Johnson, who is almost certain to be the next leader of the U.K.’s Conservative Party and therefore the country’s next prime minister, are looking at proroguing Parliament in late October to stop lawmakers from preventing a no-deal Brexit on Oct. 31, Sky News reported. The constitutional questions such a move would raise are too numerous and complex for us to fully explore here, but suffice it to say it would probably not be as simple as it seems: The queen could refuse to grant assent, Parliament could defy the order or take preemptive action in the coming weeks (just such an effort is underway this week), or legal challenges could force delays. Separately, there is the problem that proroguing Parliament would prevent it from passing legislation to ease the pain of a no-deal exit from the European Union. In reading these threats, it’s important to remember that the prospective Tory party leaders are in campaign mode, which will soon give way to tougher negotiations with the EU. (The negotiations are so tough, in fact, that the EU denies even the possibility of further negotiations.) In theory, today’s extreme position opens space for tomorrow’s compromise. If the leaks and statements coming from the next British leader’s camp weren’t frightening and convincing, then the British government wouldn’t be negotiating very well.

Is Iran willing to talk? In a public exchange with U.S. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif seemed to indicate that Iran was willing to open negotiations with the U.S. over its ballistic missile program. In an interview with NBC that aired Monday, Zarif said that, if sanctions on Iran are lifted, “the room for negotiation is wide open.” Trump responded Tuesday saying that, as a precondition to such talks, Iran would not be allowed to test any ballistic missiles that could potentially be used to carry nuclear weapons. Pompeo then said Iran’s apparent willingness to negotiate was indicative of the effectiveness of the Trump administration’s sanctions. Several hours after Pompeo’s statement, Zarif’s spokesperson said a precondition to missile talks would be a moratorium on U.S. weapons sales to “regional states,” an obvious reference to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, states that Iran considers enemies. The exchange is another example of how different the two countries’ visions of an acceptable compromise remain.

An Ethiopian referendum. Ethiopia’s electoral board announced that it will hold a referendum to decide whether the Sidama, an ethnic group that mainly lives in an eponymous zone in the country’s south, can form a new regional state. The Sidama belong to the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region, the most ethnically diverse of Ethiopia’s nine states. Ethiopia’s regional boundaries were drawn primarily along ethnic lines, and in most cases, it’s obvious which ethnic group dominates a region. However, the SNNPR is home to dozens of smaller ethnic groups. The Sidama are the first to seek their own regional state, but a handful of other ethnic groups are preparing to make the same request.

Water scarcity in France. In response to a drought in France affecting two-thirds of the country, officials are imposing water restrictions. The French Environmental Ministry said 61 of France’s 96 mainland departments are now facing water use restrictions, compared to only 10 departments in early June. Twenty-one departments, primarily in central and western France, are classified as crisis zones. Restrictions in these zones limit water for drinking, sanitation, health and emergency response, whereas irrigation restrictions are being staggered by region. The drought is being caused both by abnormally high summer temperatures and an unusually dry summer with limited rainfall and low water-table levels.

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