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.
- The European Parliament narrowly approved former German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen as the next president of the European Commission.
- Russian energy giant Gazprom has increased the volume of natural gas transiting through Ukraine to EU countries by 25 percent thanks to repairs to parts of the Nord Stream pipeline.
- As part of Uzbekistan’s ongoing bid to reform its energy sector and attract more foreign investments, the country’s largest oil and gas company, Uzbekneftegaz, will become an independent legal entity. Uzbekistan will also transfer more than 50 oil fields with declining production to foreign companies under risk service contracts.
- The United Kingdom is sending another warship, the Type 45 destroyer HMS Duncan, to the Persian Gulf to “reassure merchant shipping and safeguard the free flow of trade.” This comes after it foiled an Iranian attempt to seize a British ship near Iranian shores.
- Authorities in Greece, where approximately 1,000 migrants arrived in the first week of July, are concerned that reception centers on Greek islands are nearing capacity.
- Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced earlier this week that Turkey is planning to send a fourth drillship to the Mediterranean in the near future, although no timeline was provided.
- Confirmation hearings for Mark Esper, who had been serving as acting U.S. defense secretary after Patrick Shanahan’s resignation from the post, began yesterday. In the meantime, Naval Secretary Richard Spencer will serve as acting defense secretary.
- Portugal has suspended entry visas for Iranians, citing unspecified security concerns. Portuguese Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva said the move was not aimed at changing the nature of bilateral relations between the two countries, but that the suspension is temporary and related to a specific security threat that he said would be detailed at a later time – though not publicly.
- In a massive data breach, hackers stole from Bulgaria’s national revenue agency personal details of 5 million of the country’s 7 million inhabitants.
- China’s holdings of U.S. treasuries continued to fall, reaching a two-year low of $1.11 trillion.
- Sudan’s Transitional Military Council and opposition groups have signed a power-sharing agreement.
- Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have opened a new international transport corridor that will decrease the time it takes for Uzbek goods to reach Russian and Caucasian markets.