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 4
Jordan: Jordanians have been protesting in the streets of Amman for four days. There are now as many as a thousand participants. The protests are a response to various austerity measures meant to lower Jordan’s debt. The demonstrators demanded the resignation of the government, and Jordanian King Abdullah II capitulated, sacking the prime minister and charging his replacement to form a new government. Jordan has been uniquely stable the past few years. It survived the so-called Arab Spring partly by making concessions to its citizens, so it’s possible that the government in Amman is doing likewise again. Still, let’s monitor the protests closely. Find out how big they are, where they are spreading, and the degree to which they subside in light of the government’s actions. Pay particular attention to signs of escalation between protesters and security forces.
- Finding: On May 31, 45 protests were held with a total of 2,500 participants, according to Jordan’s Public Security Department. The demonstrations peaked on June 1, with 171 protests held in different locations and 18,500 participants. But even on June 2 and June 3, there were over 100 protests with 14,500 participants. Given that these numbers come from a government source, they likely underestimate the turnout. So far, 60 arrests have been made. The majority of the unrest was experienced in Amman, Irbid, Zarqa, Karak, Ajloun, Jerash, Tafileh, Ramtha, Salt, Maan and Aqaba. The protests continued into the week despite the ouster of the prime minister. The new prime minister has said he will cancel the controversial tax changes once he’s sworn in, a move that may be more successful in quelling the protests than the change in prime minister was.
North Korea: Several developments took place over the weekend. North and South Korea said they will hold talks on June 14 and will open a liaison office in Kaesong at an unspecified date. North Korean officials visited U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in New York, after which it was announced that the June 12 summit in Singapore is back on. Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un replaced three high-ranking military officials, having reportedly ordered his Foreign Ministry to stop its “outdated diplomacy practices.” As for the negotiations, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said the U.S. military presence in South Korea was not up for discussion, echoing hints by other U.S. officials that the White House is backing off its demand for quick and complete denuclearization. We need to find out if the North Korean reshuffling is meant to remove hard-liners who might stand in the way of nuclear talks.
- Finding: Kim has been known to regularly reshuffle senior leaders to keep competing power centers from proliferating, cement the party’s power over the military and promote a younger generation of officials. All three officials promoted this time are seen as Kim loyalists, and all three are taking control of critical levers of power. We don’t know if there was some kind of power struggle involving those replaced – or resistance to Kim’s diplomatic outreach to South Korea and the U.S. It could just as likely be routine business at home, or Kim may be assembling a team well-suited for international engagement. (All the promoted officials reportedly have experience in the diplomatic realm.) This phase of the standoff is bound to be an acutely sensitive one at home, and there’s little doubt Kim wants his government and military to be tightly hewing to his directions to maximize his latitude at the negotiating table.
France, Germany: German Chancellor Angela Merkel has come out in support of French President Emmanuel Macron’s plan for a unified EU military strategy. She also said she supports some aspects of his proposed eurozone reforms. On which points do they agree and disagree?
- Finding: Both countries support the idea of a European force separate from NATO to deal with hot spots where the United States and NATO may not have an interest in intervening. The two differ on the level and type of participation from members. Macron suggested the force be built as a “coalition of the willing” that would exist outside the European Union. Merkel wants the force to function within the existing structure of the EU but believes each country should decide whether it wants to commit troops to operations. In terms of eurozone reforms, Macron and Merkel both support the idea of turning the European Stability Mechanism fund into a European Monetary Fund, which, in addition to providing long-term loans, could offer short-term credit to help members deal with smaller problems before they develop into larger crises. The two countries have differing views on how to establish the EMF and its framework. Germany wants minimal changes to the current EU structure, while France wants more integration.
Italy: Snap elections in Italy were averted when the ruling coalition of the League and the Five Star Movement agreed to appoint a finance minister who is broadly considered an advocate of the eurozone. The League and Five Star campaigned on an anti-European platform but have since moderated their language. Exactly how euroskeptic is Italy’s new government?
- Finding: The new government is focusing on reforming the EU rather than rejecting it outright. It wants to stay in the eurozone, end austerity, stimulate growth through business-friendly legislation, increase social spending and scrap the Dublin Regulation, which requires asylum seekers to register in the first EU state they enter.
South China Sea: U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said Beijing will face unspecified consequences for its actions in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, unnamed Pentagon officials said the U.S. is planning to intensify patrols and joint exercises in the South China Sea, while British and French officials said their navies will soon begin conducting freedom of navigation operations. Last week, a senior Pentagon official noted that the U.S. is well-equipped to take out Chinese military installations on disputed islands. Is this the beginning of more forceful multilateral efforts to counter China?
- Finding: See our Reality Check published June 8.
Items from June 5
Russia: Russian President Vladimir Putin has fired Crimea’s interior minister and the head of the regional Emergencies Ministry. Find out who the ousted officials were and who has taken over their posts. We need to know if this move will affect Russia’s control of Crimea.
- Finding: Talk of the interior minister resigning has been circulating since May. There appears to be no connection between the dismissals and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. This move seems to be another attempt by Moscow to ensure its control over the region. The Kremlin is likely to replace the ousted officials with people Putin trusts from Russia.
U.S., Turkey: The U.S. and Turkey have agreed to a roadmap for the northern Syrian city of Manbij. The plan reportedly includes the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters from the city, just south of the Turkish border. Meanwhile, a pro-Turkey media outlet has reported that 150 U.S. troops are being deployed to Sinjar, Iraq, where Turkey has launched a military operation to rid the area of fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. It also reported that Turkish forces are advancing on Iraq’s Qandil region, a PKK stronghold. Could either of these operations derail the U.S.-Turkey agreement on Manbij?
- Finding: See our Reality Check published June 6.
U.S., Mexico: Mexico will reportedly respond to tariffs imposed on it by the U.S. with a new levy on imports of pork products from the U.S. Keep an eye on these developments.
- Finding: The tariffs imposed by Mexico will be implemented July 5. They include 20 percent levies on agriculture products like ham, cheese, apples, potatoes and blueberries. Pork on the bone will also see a 20 percent levy, but a small amount will be allowed in before the tariff is applied. Items that will see 25 percent tariffs include bourbon whiskey and a variety of steel products. In addition, Canada imposed new tariffs that will affect $12.4 billion worth of goods and are set to start July 1. The most-affected states – Ohio, Michigan, New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania – will each see at least $1 billion worth of goods impacted. The goods include steel, maple syrup, aluminum, food condiments, select insecticides, paperboard products, whiskey, refrigeration materials and beauty supplies. Meanwhile, according to a Trump administration economic adviser, the U.S. may try to negotiate separately with Canada and Mexico, both of which have insisted on trilateral talks in the past.
Items from June 6
Southeast Asia: A report from the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, claims that China can regulate the flow of the Mekong River by withholding as much as 27 percent of the river’s flow. This gives Beijing a lot of leverage over food production in Southeast Asian countries, many of which it is already butting heads with over territorial claims in the South China Sea. Find out how accurate the report is.
- Finding: The report makes sense. The flow of the river is a problem. It’s already been hurting Vietnamese rice farmers and wreaking havoc on the invaluable Mekong Delta system. China needs to keep downstream flows steady enough to facilitate small-scale shipping traffic from Yunnan to northern Thailand, as well as to fuel China-bound hydropower in Laos, limiting its ability to reduce flows for strategic purposes somewhat. Still, its dams, combined with its potential control over flows from dams in Laos, give it ample power to put the squeeze on Cambodia or Vietnam.
Turkey, Greece: Turkey flew F-16s in Greek airspace for 20 minutes on June 5. The move is a response to an ongoing diplomatic dispute regarding Turkish soldiers who allegedly fled to Greece to escape prosecution after participating in the 2016 coup attempt. How rare is this? What is the chance of escalation?
- Finding: This is a fairly common occurrence. Turkish jets violated Greece’s airspace at least three times in 2017 and once in April 2018.
South China Sea: China is reportedly withdrawing missile launchers from Woody Island, one of the most developed and militarized islands in the South China Sea. The reports may or may not be true, and in any case, the withdrawal may or may not be permanent. But suppose for a moment they are true. What would China get in return for disarming, and from whom?
- Finding: If China were to scale back its militarization of the South China Sea, Woody Island probably wouldn’t be the place it starts. It’s too large, too developed, too close to Hainan – and thus too important to China’s naval strategy to be the first to go. Moreover, Woody Island has been under Chinese control since the end of World War II, unlike the more hotly contested manmade islands recently built by China in the Paracels and Spratlys. Moreover, surface-to-air missiles were reportedly removed from Woody Island in 2016 before reappearing just months later; there’s no reason to believe this latest move is intended to be permanent. (The anti-ship missile and SAM installations deployed last month that have everyone upset are in the Spratlys.)
Items from June 7
Iraq: The Iraqi parliament has ordered a recount of all 11 million votes from the May 12 election. What motivated this move?
- Finding: Though there were reports of fraud on election day, they appeared to be somewhat localized. Calls for a recount intensified after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who initially accepted the election results, received a report from a committee of Iraqi security officials on the election results claiming that there was an issue with the electronic counting machines, which were used for the first time in this election. The outgoing parliament voted to recount all ballots manually, and al-Abadi has forbidden higher-ranking officials on the electoral commission from leaving the country, claiming that criminal charges may be brought against some of them. Ballots from overseas voters and internally displaced voters have been annulled. Al-Abadi and his coalition were in first place in polls before election day but came in third.
China: U.S. Consulate workers in Guangzhou have been evacuated from China after experiencing mysterious health problems. A similar incident was reported in April involving a consulate worker in China who was exposed to strange noises that lasted several months. Their accounts appear similar to those of U.S. Consulate workers in Cuba in 2016. See what other details we can find about this story.
- Finding: The only other known incident to date was the one in Cuba, which led to the expulsion of several Cuban diplomats from the U.S. (Washington has not blamed the Cuban government directly for the apparent “sonic attack,” but rather for failing to protect U.S. citizens.) The U.S. does not appear to have come to any firm conclusions about what’s causing the issue. The State Department announced the launch of a multiagency task force to investigate the cause of the symptoms this week. The Journal of the American Medical Association said an explanation “remains elusive.”