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Watch List Findings: April 14, 2018

Discontent in Iran, strained U.S.-Mexico relations, more North Korean purges

|April 13, 2018

What follows are the preliminary findings for issues identified in the daily Watch Lists this week. We are only sending findings that we regard as significant or potentially significant to keep this list manageable. We have findings for all the Watch List items. Should you be interested in findings not listed here, please contact us and we will email them to you.

To emphasize, you can contact us if there is an item not included here for which you’d like to see the findings.

Our goal, as always, is to focus on what matters and not on things that don’t.

Items from April 9

Vietnam: The Hanoi People’s Court sentenced six people to 7-15 years in prison for trying to overthrow the government. From March 2013 to July 2017, the accused established the Brotherhood for Democracy, which spreads propaganda against the state. This is a relatively new group. Court documents refer to financial and institutional ties to foreign and illegal groups. We need a basic understanding of the group’s mission, size and international ties.

  • Finding: Exact figures are not available, but the network of pro-democracy activists appears to be fairly small. It would be a prime candidate for funding from U.S. groups like the National Endowment for Democracy (though this link has not been confirmed) and presumably benefits from Vietnam’s large diaspora in the West. In the past, it has sought to pressure the government over a range of human rights issues, as well as environmental issues – a growing problem for the government in Hanoi.

Afghanistan, Pakistan: Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed on seven key components of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity, an initiative to enhance anti-terrorism cooperation between the two countries. This comes as calls for peace talks in Afghanistan are building. Is this some kind of new peace plan? Are we seeing a shift in Pakistan’s approach to dealing with cross-border terrorism?

  • Finding: The Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity is a fairly new initiative; talks over the agreement started in October. The seven components of the initiative are Pakistan’s support for an Afghan-led peace process, action against fugitives, territorial denial to anti-state actors, establishment of a liaison office, avoidance of territorial violations, avoidance of public blame games and establishment of related working groups. Given that it is still in the early stages, the effectiveness of the agreement remains to be seen. Pakistan is particularly interested in building connections to the Afghan economy. This reflects the fact that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will be extended to include Afghanistan. It’s too early to say that Pakistan is shifting its stance on dealing with cross-border terrorism. The two countries have yet to decide which groups and actions would be the target of counterterrorism operations. The U.S. has noted that Pakistan has made some progress on this front but still has much work to do.

Azerbaijan, Armenia: Tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia appear to be rising. An analyst for the American-Azerbaijani Progress Promotion Foundation alleged that laboratories in Armenia renovated with funding from the U.S. Embassy are developing bacteriological weapons. In addition, the Armenian Defense Ministry claims that Azerbaijan has committed cease-fire violations in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan. Meanwhile, Armenia’s new president was sworn in on April 9, and Azerbaijan will hold its own presidential election on April 11. Are the current tensions related to these votes, or is there something deeper going on here?

  • Finding: The tensions are not specifically related to the elections – they are a normal feature of bilateral relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The underlying issue remains which country should control Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed region that is officially part of Azerbaijan but administered by local ethnic Armenian forces.

Items from April 10

Mexico: Mexico’s president called on each of his ministries to review the mechanisms of cooperation it has with the United States. The Foreign Ministry will head the review, which is expected to take several weeks. We need to figure out what prompted the review and whether it has a precedent. Let’s also identify the areas where Mexico is most vulnerable as well as where it could forgo extensive cooperation with the United States.

  • Finding: The unprecedented review was initiated after the U.S. announced plans to deploy National Guard units along the Mexican border. The review could affect several areas of bilateral cooperation. Last week, Mexico’s Senate passed a non-binding resolution calling on the government to suspend cooperation with the U.S. on illegal immigration and drug trafficking. Other areas that might be in jeopardy include anti-corruption, money laundering, domestic judiciary training and labor. Issues that might be indirectly affected include infectious disease control, border area management and groundwater management. Economic matters are less likely to be affected given that NAFTA negotiations are ongoing and Mexico clearly wants to preserve the agreement.

Australia: Australia’s Fairfax Media reported that China and Vanuatu held preliminary talks on the establishment of a Chinese military base. Officials from all three governments strongly denied the report. The report is very detailed, suggesting it may have been leaked to the press. Why did the newspaper run this report? How credible is this possibility?

  • Finding: The source of the report is unnamed senior Australian defense officials. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull did not dismiss the report but rather expressed concern and said his counterpart in Vanuatu reassured him that no such plans were in the works. Canberra has been keen to avoid inflaming tension with Beijing, as well as to tamp down rising anti-Chinese sentiment among the Australian public, so this response suggests that it found some reason to be concerned about Chinese activities in the small island nation, which theoretically could be used in a conflict to block U.S.-Australian trade. Still, for the foreseeable future, a military base on Vanuatu would have only marginal utility for China, given China’s naval limitations. Such a move would also almost certainly solidify Australia’s interest in joining preparations by the U.S., India and Japan to potentially contain Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. China has an interest in laying the groundwork for a more substantive presence in the South Pacific – and is investing heavily in countries like Vanuatu as a result – but this is a long-term project, at most.

Items from April 11

Iran, Russia, Turkey: Iran, Russia and Turkey are all experiencing significant declines in the value of their currencies, with some hitting record lows in relation to the U.S. dollar. What is causing these currencies to depreciate? Is there a common denominator between the three countries?

Czech Republic: The Czech president has urged the prime minister to once again try to form a coalition with the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia and the euroskeptic Freedom and Direct Democracy party following the collapse of coalition talks with the Social Democrats last week. The prime minister has not won a confidence vote in parliament since he took office last October. Our forecast expects nationalism to grow throughout Europe. Are we seeing the start of an anti-EU government in the Czech Republic? Has the EU issued any comments about the status of the Czech government recently?

  • Finding: The Czech EU commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality told reporters on April 11 that she hopes Prime Minister Andrej Babis will not form a coalition with the Freedom and Direct Democracy party, or SPD. There have been no other statements from the EU. Babis said he does not fear a backlash from other countries if his party forms a coalition with the Communist Party and SPD, given that Austria’s coalition government includes a nationalist party and has not faced consequences. A coalition government that includes the SPD would make the Czech Republic more active in the Visegrad Four, which Babis has praised as a good format to promote Czech interests, and less compliant with certain EU directives, including refugee quotas.

Belarus, Russia: Belarus and Russia have started joint tactical military exercises near the city of Brest along the Polish border. Exercises will focus on counter-sabotage operations and operations against illegal paramilitary units. How far in advance were these exercises scheduled? Has there been any response from Poland or NATO?

  • Finding: The Belarusian Defense Ministry first announced the drills a week ago, though similar exercises have been held in this area each April for the past several years. Numerous other joint drills with the Russians have taken place in recent years in the Brest region, where the Russians operate an early warning radar station (albeit much farther from the border). NATO and Poland have not said anything of note about the drills.

Items from April 12

North Korea: North Korean state media reports that two officials who previously were considered trusted advisers to Kim Jong Un have been dismissed. Additionally, Kim did not attend the latest meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly. There was much speculation that Kim would use the meeting to send a message to the U.S. and South Korea. The inner workings of North Korea’s political system are rather unknown, though it would not be inconceivable to imagine differing opinions over the denuclearization talks. How unusual is it for Kim to be absent from an assembly meeting? Do the two events indicate some sort of tension within the North Korean government?

  • Finding: It’s not unusual for Kim to skip these sorts of meetings, nor for senior officials to move in and out of Kim’s inner circle. Four officials were dismissed in total, and there is reason to believe the purges have little to do with the current phase of the Korean crisis. For example, the most notable of the purged officials, former Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong So, abruptly fell out of favor with Kim last year. According to South Korean intelligence sources, taking bribes was his downfall, though there is some speculation that he also had become too powerful for Kim’s tastes. Another of the officials formally dismissed on April 12, Kim Won Hong, was Hwang’s deputy and imprisoned around the same time. A third, former Workers’ Party of Korea Vice Chairman Kim Ki Nam, is 87 years old and retired last fall. Nonetheless, the timing of these developments is more notable, with North Korea potentially approaching a decision point on whether to push forward with its nuclear deterrent. Whichever path Pyongyang chooses, Kim will need his government behind him – and the threat of a U.S. military operation, combined with withering sanctions pressure, is likely to expose any cracks in his administration.

Syria: There are reports that the Syrian military is repositioning air assets and that British submarines have received orders to prepare for a possible strike on Syria. Russian warships are also reportedly leaving the Syrian port of Tartus. Meanwhile, Turkey’s president spoke to his American and Russian counterparts on the phone about the Syrian situation. The United States is asking the United Kingdom, France and Australia to back a possible joint military response to the chemical attack in the Syrian town of Douma. All three said they would likely support military action provided there was firm evidence that the Assad regime was responsible for the attack. French President Emmanuel Macron publicly stated that his country has evidence that Syria used chemical weapons in Douma. We will watch these developments closely.

China: China announced that it will hold one-day live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait next week. This comes after repeated warnings to the U.S. not to sell submarine-related technology to Taiwan and a recent air force amphibious exercise that local military analysts said simulated a raid on Taiwan. China’s upcoming exercise appears to be part of continued military posturing. What has been the U.S. reaction to China’s warning, and what is the status of the technology sale? What other options are available to China to deter further cooperation?

  • Finding: The U.S. government has awarded a marketing license in support of Taiwan’s efforts to develop its own diesel-electric submarines. A marketing license does not guarantee Taiwan would be able to purchase the parts or technology it has been shown – this requires separate export licenses. Neither U.S. nor Taiwanese official statements make clear which particular submarine part or technology the marketing license has authorized Taiwan to seek from U.S. companies. So far, the U.S. has not reacted to Chinese warnings. Another way China can deter further U.S.-Taiwan cooperation is to pressure the island economically. In 2015, roughly 40 percent of Taiwan’s exports went to China, Taiwanese investment in the mainland reached approximately $133 billion, and Chinese visitors to Taiwan totaled 3.5 million. China has applied economic pressure on Taiwan before. For example, China reduced group tourism to Taiwan in 2017 by about 18 percent, putting a squeeze on the tour bus and hotel industry on the island.