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 June 18
U.S., China: The White House announced plans to put a 25 percent tariff on $50 billion worth of annual imports from China. In response, China’s Finance Ministry imposed an additional 25 percent tariff on some 650 U.S. imports, worth around $50 billion, two-thirds of which will take effect in early July. Both sides are targeting what they see as the other’s political and economic vulnerabilities: China is going after U.S. agriculture and energy, while the U.S. is targeting goods related to Beijing’s Made in China 2025 drive to subsidize and develop strategically important advanced technologies. Notably, Beijing said the U.S. moves invalidate any progress made in recent high-level talks aimed at avoiding a full-blown trade war. Is this the end of negotiations? How much blowback is either side facing at home?
- Finding: The bulk of the tariffs do not kick in for three weeks, so there’s still some room to negotiate. U.S. farmers, coal miners, oil producers and carmakers may be in for the biggest beating. China has developed a hefty appetite for U.S. crude oil in recent years as OPEC and other major producers have been cutting production, helping aid the recovery of the U.S. industry following the price collapse. Meanwhile, U.S. coal exports rose by more than 60 percent last year, thanks in large part to a more than doubling of exports to Asia. In the agricultural sector, soybean, sorghum and citrus farmers are highly vulnerable, along with pork, beef, seafood and poultry exporters. The U.S. auto sector has likewise been enjoying growing demand in China. Of course, American industry and consumers will be hurt by the U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods, which, according to a study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, would also harm multinational firms operating in China more than their Chinese competitors.
Russia: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government is touching the third rail in Russian politics: pension reform. The most significant change on the table appears to be raising the retirement age by five years for men and eight years for women. Russia seems to be approaching this decision carefully. Putin’s spokesman said the president had not formed his own position on the reforms, which right now are only being discussed. Meanwhile, Russian papers are probing the possibility of a backlash and protests. The Roman approach was bread and circuses. Russia is toying with taking away some bread during a major circus (the World Cup). If these reforms go through, how many people will be affected, and where in Russia do they live.
- Finding: The government’s argument is that raising the retirement age will increase the average pension, and it stressed that the reform would not affect current pensioners. Critics were unconvinced. Some experts have brought up the risk of higher unemployment, and an online petition against the reform received more than 2 million signatures.
Russia, Israel: After Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke by phone last week, the Jerusalem Post reported that the head of Russia’s military police visited Israel to discuss the withdrawal of all Iranian troops and Shiite militias from areas near the Israel-Syria border. Meanwhile, Israel’s domestic security service said it foiled a plot by 20 Hamas members in the West Bank to carry out bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. These issues are perhaps geopolitically separate, but they are linked for Israel. Our first task is finding out whether Hezbollah and Iran are really pulling back from the border. Next is examining the intricacies of the Hamas bombing plot and whether we should expect more like it.
- Finding: What looked like an Israeli-Russian understanding that Iranian and Hezbollah fighters would pull back from the Israeli border seems to be collapsing. Israel’s most recent airstrike in eastern Syria is a sign that Israel means business. It is unclear whether Russia has the leverage to do what Israel wants, or even if Russia was ever willing to go that far. Syrian leader Bashar Assad has made aggressive statements but also said there was still a chance for a diplomatic settlement in southern Syria. Regarding Hamas, Israeli pressure is taking a heavy financial toll on the Palestinian Authority. Hamas is trying to increase its influence in the West Bank with both protests and attacks against Israel. Hamas faces an uphill battle here, but Israeli pressure may be opening up some popular sentiments that Hamas can capitalize on.
Items from June 19
North Korea, China: Kim Jong Un is in China for the third time in three months, and South Korea confirmed that military exercises with the U.S. planned for August have been suspended. We need a better understanding of the relationship between China and Kim and what China is trying to get out of this situation.
- Finding: See our Reality Check published June 21.
U.S., China: U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened 10 percent tariffs on an additional $200 billion worth of Chinese goods. Up to now, we’ve been restrained in our use of the phrase “trade war” because the total value of the goods involved was so small, but if Trump goes through with this threat and China retaliates, we’ll be getting into significant trade values. What sectors is each side threatening, and how much damage would it do?
- Finding: Altogether, the U.S. is threatening tariffs on some $450 billion worth of Chinese goods. Based on what the U.S. Trade Representative (and Commerce Department) has investigated so far, textiles and manufacturing are likely future targets. China has struck at American cars, textiles, steel, coal mining and manufacturing. China’s Ministry of Commerce said it will continue to match U.S. tariffs, but considering the U.S. exported only around $130 billion in goods to China last year, we’re moving past the point where Beijing can respond proportionately. This could force China to try to hit the U.S. indirectly.
Items from June 20
Turkey: General elections are coming up on June 24. Keep an eye on the polls. What are the scenarios in play, and how, if at all, will they affect Turkish policy.
- Finding: See our Reality Check published June 22.
Serbia, Kosovo: The presidents of Serbia and Kosovo will meet in Brussels on June 24, and reports suggest the European Union will pressure Serbia to implement previous agreements. Media in both countries are critical of their leaders. The situation is extremely volatile as it approaches what is shaping up to be a critical juncture. Let’s examine what pressure the EU can exert on Serbia as well as how Serbia might respond.
- Finding: The EU can threaten to delay accession talks, but since it is not clear when accession would realistically take place (the plan is 2025), this is not that serious of a threat. It also is not a new threat. The Serbian government has been discussing a compromise in which Serbia neither recognizes Kosovo’s independence nor maintains its position that Kosovo is undeniably part of Serbia. How this would work in practice is unclear, but it is an attempt to move forward and save face.
Iran: There are reports of a major clash between the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and President Hassan Rouhani over potential cuts to the IRGC’s budget. Meanwhile, the Rouhani administration said the government would act quickly to tackle high prices. On the foreign policy front, Iran said European proposals to modify the nuclear deal are insufficient. Rouhani appeared to have the upper hand against the IRGC, but this newest argument may indicate the balance is tipping the other way. How bad is inflation right now? And are Iran’s warnings about the nuclear deal just posturing, or is withdrawal imminent?
- Finding: The consumer price index and the producer price index reported by Iran’s central bank were 9.1 percent and 11.3 percent, respectively, at the end of May. ISNA news agency has reported that, since March, meat prices have increased by 16 percent, basmati rice by 21 percent, and cooking oil by 4.5 percent. The rial has sunk to 65,000-70,000 per dollar – at one point in mid-June it dropped to 75,000 – even though the official exchange rate is being held at 42,000 rial to the dollar. Cars have gotten more expensive, as have home appliances.
Yemen: The battle of Hodeida is not over yet. Iran-backed Houthi rebels have struck back at Saudi supply lines. What’s the latest, and how important is this battle really for the civil war?
- Finding: Without Hodeida, the rebels would struggle to receive weapons and provisions, not to mention the port receives three-quarters of Yemen’s total exports. The Houthis won’t give it up easily. For now, the Saudi coalition has taken the Hodeida airport, the location of a major Houthi base, but the battle for the city goes on.
Nepal: Ahead of his first official visit to Beijing, Nepalese Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli said Nepal will join China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. Nepal’s orientation matters greatly. It is one of the major flashpoints between India and China, and if the prime minister’s statement indicates more than politeness and a willingness to take Chinese checks, this should set off alarm bells in India.
- Finding: Nepal has gradually been getting closer to China over the past few years, particularly since India’s de facto border blockade and the rise of the new communist government in Kathmandu. It’s now comfortably in a phase of trying to play both sides off each other for material gain.
Items from June 21
Iraq: Iraqi security forces have clashed with an Iran-backed Shiite militia. This comes as a misunderstanding has emerged between Turkey and Iran over Turkish operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Iraq. Turkey said Iran wanted to coordinate more attacks, while Iran said it doesn’t want to violate other countries’ sovereignty. What’s really going on here?
- Finding: Accounts of the events vary slightly, but essentially it was an arrest gone wrong. The driver of a stolen car who police were trying to arrest was a member of the Hezbollah Brigades, and at some point, police surrounded the group’s headquarters. In the end, one militia member was handed over for arrest, though the handover was reportedly overseen by the interior minister and the head of the Iraqi parliament’s security committee, which indicates it was politically sensitive. It’s also an indication of how much influence Iran has in Iraq. It isn’t untouchable – an arrest was made, after all – but high-level Iraqi officials had to get involved to calm the situation.
Kazakhstan: A speaker in the Kazakh Senate has said Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev may not run for re-election in 2020. It’s not normal for succession to be discussed openly in Kazakhstan. Has there been any backlash to this statement or is this just part of managing a stable transition of power?
- Finding: Whether he runs again or not, Nazarbayev will have a huge impact on policy. He would likely head the country’s Security Council – in May, Kazakhstan approved a bill that gives Nazarbayev the right to head the council for life. His successor will be someone who has worked close to him for a long time.
China: There have been rumors that China might have three aircraft carriers in the works, one with a catapult system. We’ve written about how carriers are becoming obsolete. Why is China focusing on carriers? Let’s forget about catapults and compare China’s industrial plan to the United States’ when it comes to shipbuilding.
- Finding: China certainly has the industrial plant needed to produce a wide range of warships at startling speed. From 2012 to 2014, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, U.S. output outpaced China in terms of total tonnage, but China has surpassed the U.S. in the years since. It’s hard to say how sophisticated any of these are, since none have been used in major combat operations. But, according to the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, China’s latest classes of frigates, destroyers and cruisers are all considered to be “modern and capable designs comparable in many respects to the most modern Western warships.” Its submarines are still considered several generations behind their U.S. and even Japanese counterparts, while China is still scratching the surface in carrier technology, to say nothing of training and operational expertise and experience. For more on the strategic rationale behind China’s carrier program, see our Deep Dive published May 24.