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Watch List Findings: Aug. 5, 2017

|August 11, 2017

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 July 31

China: Chinese President Xi Jinping is restoring the position of chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. We need to look into what powers this new position will have.

  • Finding: This would not grant Xi new powers, but it would enable him to remain in power past the 2022 end date of his term. Xi is staring down term limits and a mandatory retirement age, both for himself and some of his closest supporters in the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee. He can bypass the former by reinstituting the chairmanship, which would secure his place as the top leader of China indefinitely. Abolishing the retirement age would help him retain power in the Communist Party, especially since it would help his senior friend Wang Qishan – Xi’s enforcer as secretary of the anti-corruption Central Commission for Discipline Inspection – stay in his position. Both amendments will be considered this month.

China-Philippines: China has pledged additional aid to the Philippines to help combat the unrest in Marawi. The issue at hand is not the aid itself but what it indicates, if anything, about the current state of Chinese-Philippine relations.

  • Finding: Chinese military assistance to the Philippines is a step forward for the two countries, but the roughly $7.3 million this year is meager compared to U.S. aid. U.S. military and police assistance funding to the Philippines has averaged around $60 million per year over the past five years, and the bilateral defense relationship remains much deeper on every level and far more indispensable to Philippine security needs. China’s ambassador to the country said the lack of a visiting forces agreement between China and the Philippines is hindering the prospects of joint training or exercises on Philippine soil. Whether there is any progress toward striking such an accord is worth watching.

Items from Aug. 1

U.S.-China: The U.S. government continues to consider applying sanctions on China for its inability or unwillingness to de-escalate the situation on the Korean Peninsula. We need to understand what kinds of measures Washington is looking at and how they would affect the Chinese economy.

  • Finding: Though White House leaks this week suggest the administration is ready to act, details on what it has in mind are scant, and it’s difficult to game out consequences without them. The key question is whether U.S. sanctions will remain confined to targets believed to be directly facilitating North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, or whether the White House will link the North Korea issue to its broader trade agenda regarding China. If the former, any sanctions would likely resemble the package of “secondary sanctions” the U.S. introduced in late June, when it targeted a Chinese shipping company, a Chinese bank and a pair of Chinese citizens believed to be helping Pyongyang circumvent U.N. sanctions. The latter scenario would be more complicated. We know China is less able to deter North Korea from its course than one might imagine, regardless of how Washington chooses to pressure Beijing. But U.S. President Donald Trump has a political imperative to pursue a change in the trade relationship with China, and certain U.S. laws permit the White House to apply punitive measures unilaterally. In the past when China tried to retaliate to U.S. punitive trade measures, China was hurt more than the U.S., and to this day China is more dependent on the U.S. than the U.S. is on China. Thus, there is only a small chance that a dispute over Chinese steel and aluminum would escalate into a full-fledged trade war. The fallout, however, could extend beyond the U.S.-China relationship and affect other U.S. trade partners such as Canada – potentially even undermining the very mandate of the World Trade Organization – depending on factors like the legal rationale the White House uses to apply tariffs on Chinese exports.

Russia: The parliament of the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia ratified an agreement to establish an information and coordination center that gives Russian law enforcement special powers to operate in Abkhazia. Reports meanwhile suggest that Russia is making moves to take control of South Ossetia, another breakaway region, and that, farther east, Azerbaijan has pulled out of NATO exercises. Russia is looking for leverage over the United States in response to new economic sanctions, and the Caucasus is a good place to start. We need to understand Russia’s plan for the region.

  • Finding: Moscow needs to preserve its influence in the buffer region of the Caucasus, so it takes any signs of U.S. encroachment seriously. For this reason, a new line of confrontation between the U.S. and Russia is being drawn along the Georgian border. Russia plans to not only keep its influence strong but also to build on security agreements and gain control of critical components such as energy infrastructure. At the end of July, the Russian military seized part of the Baku-Supsa oil pipeline, giving it more control over energy flows between the Caspian region and Europe. Russia and the U.S. continue to conduct separate military exercises along the line of demarcation between South Ossetia and Georgia. In fact, if we compare the Russian exercises with similar drills last June, we can see there are now five times as many servicemen participating and four times as much hardware. There was a separate story this week about the absorption of the South Ossetian army into Russian forces. This is the culmination of a 2015 agreement on defense and security cooperation and integration. The army of South Ossetia is small, and the accession won’t significantly affect the strength of the Russian army, but the expansion of territory under Russian security forces helps strengthen Moscow’s control over an important buffer region. So far, Russia’s moves have focused on security and military infrastructure, but we will watch for any other major infrastructure acquisitions as well as moves to expand Russia’s reach into other areas of the South Ossetian or Abkhazian territory and government.

Ukraine: The U.S. State Department and Defense Department agreed to supply Ukraine with anti-tank missiles and weapons, pending U.S. executive approval. The weaponry is described as defensive and will reportedly help Kiev fight pro-Russia rebels. We need to track the progression of this proposal, when the delivery of weapons would occur and troop movement in contested areas such as Crimea.

  • Finding: The details of the proposal have not been released, but there are reports that anti-aircraft systems would also be included. The pro-Russia rebels have no air force, so this would be a direct challenge to the only air force on that side of the conflict: Russia’s. We have not seen any new Russian troop movements in contested areas, only a diplomatic warning against U.S. involvement in Ukraine.

Items from Aug. 2

Russia: Events in the Caucasus and Russia’s shipment of grain to North Korea indicate an emerging Russian counter to the United States. Although no war will break out, Russia will increase pressure around its periphery to undermine confidence in U.S. security guarantees. Russia is trying to contain U.S. pressure and negotiate a stand-down. It will take weeks to ramp up but we are seeing the first stages. The Russians need to respond to the new U.S. sanctions somehow and are being forced to act. We need a bottom-up review of Russian activity in North Korea, the Caucasus, Syria and Ukraine.

Iraq: Prominent Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr visited Saudi Arabia and met with the new crown prince. Another prominent Iraqi Shiite leader, Ammar al-Hakim, will reportedly also visit the kingdom. We need to examine why top Shiite leaders are reaching out to Saudi Arabia. What does this say about Iranian influence in Iraq and the wider balance of power across the Persian Gulf?

  • Finding: Saudi Arabia is courting the Iraqi Shiites to challenge Iran’s virtual monopoly on influence in Iraq. The kingdom is also trying to use the shared Arab ethnicity to counter Iran’s efforts to exploit the Shiite sectarian bond that Tehran has with the Iraqis and other Arab Shiite actors in the region. Saudi Arabia’s moves are unlikely to bear fruit given the highly polarized sectarian regional atmosphere. As for the Iraqi Shiite groups, engaging with Saudi Arabia provides them with recognition as the main power brokers in Iraq. A working relationship with Riyadh is also a tool to try to manage the Sunni minority now that Mosul has been retaken from the Islamic State. The Iraqi Shiites are coordinating these dealings with the Saudis with their allies in Tehran.

North Korea: North Korea conducted a submarine-launched ballistic missile ejection test July 30, according to an anonymous U.S. defense official who spoke to CNN. An ejection test assesses the systems responsible for pushing the missile out of the submarine far enough above the surface of the water for the missile’s rockets to ignite. Though North Korea is believed to have one submarine capable of launching ballistic missiles, it’s unknown if Pyongyang has the technology required to ignite, stabilize and correct for an SLBM’s trajectory. This was the third ejection test North Korea conducted in July and the fourth this year.

  • Finding: In May, North Korea opened its second SLBM testing site. 38North, a research group that focuses on North Korea, indicated that this might signal that the regime is planning to speed up its SLBM development. Though North Korea has conducted several ejection tests this year, it has not conducted an SLBM test since August 2016. A little over a week before the latest ejection test, however, North Korea’s only ballistic missile-capable submarine appeared to have traveled 60 miles (100 kilometers) into the East Sea, which would have made this trip its longest documented voyage. This could be a sign that North Korea plans to conduct more SLBM tests soon. It’s unclear, however, if Pyongyang’s ballistic missile submarine – which is experimental – could be deployed in a conflict situation, or if the country would need to develop a new design.

Items From Aug. 3

Russia: Roughly 400 Russian troops held a military drill in Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia. This follows several moves we are watching in the Caucasus and tracks with our Aug. 3 Reality Check. How far in advance was this drill scheduled? Is it part of the general trend we are seeing of Russia making moves here, or is it just a regularly scheduled program?

  • Finding: Over the summer, more than 500 practical classes and about 100 tactical, tactical-special and command staff exercises and trainings are planned at the Russian military base in Abkhazia. We presume these training sessions were conducted within the framework of drills. In addition to the 400 or so servicemen who took part in the drill at the Tsabal training ground, more than 70 weapons and pieces of military equipment were involved, including the Grad rocket launcher system and 152 mm Akatsiya howitzers. This is smaller than previous exercises. For example, about 1,000 servicemen and 300 weapons and pieces of military equipment were involved in the readiness check in mid-July.

Syria: We need to better understand the level of cooperation between Russia and the U.S. in Syria. Despite the increase in tensions between the two countries over sanctions, the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar has reported on a potential agreement for the U.S.-backed Syrian groups that control the al-Tanf border crossing to hand it over to Russian-backed Syrian forces.

  • Finding: The U.S. position toward the Syrian army is shifting despite the White House’s continued rhetoric against the regime. The U.S. and Russia previously signaled a willingness to work together on four de-escalation zones in western Syria, which includes the areas of Idlib and Aleppo, Homs, Damascus and southern Syria near the borders with Israel, Jordan and Iraq. The Syrian army dominates all four areas, and so far only Russia has sent peacekeeping forces; the U.S. has stayed out of these zones. The U.S. formally supported the anti-regime Free Syrian Army rebels near the border of Jordan, Iraq and Syria, but the rebels have lost favor with Washington because of their reluctance to fight the Islamic State instead fight the Syrian army. This has distracted the Syrian army from its strategically important push across southern Syria toward the T3 pumping station and into the IS heartland and Deir el-Zour province. Therefore, the U.S. is tacitly supporting Bashar Assad’s regime by allowing Russia to take this part of al-Tanf and broker terms of cease-fire or surrender with Free Syrian Army rebels so that the Syrian army can focus on the fight in the core of IS territory.

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