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Watch List: March 6, 2018

North and South Korea get closer, U.S.-Pakistan relations, Japan scraps fighter jet

  • Last updated: March 6
  • Total word count: 798 words

The items listed below represent potential emerging issues that our analysts are tracking. These can be long term or short term, but will be updated daily. If an item on our Watch List becomes critical, we will email you a full analysis explaining its significance.

Each Saturday, we will follow up our daily Watch List for each week with our conclusions on these issues.

North Korea: Two South Korean envoys returned from a two-day visit to Pyongyang with news that North Korea has agreed to freeze nuclear and missile tests while dialogue between the two countries continues. They also said Pyongyang expressed a willingness to denuclearize if North Korea’s safety could be guaranteed. North Korea reportedly “understood” why South Korea needed to go ahead with military exercises with the United States. Japan has reacted to this story with consternation and the U.S. with caution. The envoys are due to visit Washington soon. This is a major shift in North Korea’s posture. Can North Korea achieve regime survival and unification at the same time?

Pakistan: An aide to U.S. President Donald Trump was recently in Islamabad, and now Pakistan has dispatched its foreign secretary for meetings with the White House and the State Department to discuss the breach in U.S.-Pakistan relations. Our current assessment is that this breach likely can’t be healed, as the interests of the two sides are too divergent at this point, but we’ll need to keep an eye on the foreign secretary’s visit to see if either side has developed a desire for compromise.

Turkey: The U.S.-Turkish working group that was set up following U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Turkey a few weeks ago will meet for the first time in Washington this week. Tillerson and his Turkish counterpart are expected to meet on March 18-19 as well, though that meeting has not yet been officially scheduled. Meanwhile, representatives of Turkey, Iran and Russia will convene in a week or so to lay the groundwork for a foreign minister-level meeting between the three countries. We will be evaluating Turkey’s approach toward Iran and Russia and the prospects for an agreement between Turkey and the U.S. on Syria.

Japan: Japan has decided to scrap domestic production of a fifth generation fighter jet. This was reportedly not unexpected, and indeed we had tracked recent moves by Japan to purchase additional F-35s from the United States. Even so, it is somewhat surprising to see Japan throw in the towel on this project. It seems especially notable considering that China just made noise about building its own fifth generation fighter. Does it say anything negative about Japan’s military-industrial complex or its ability to field an air force and produce military equipment domestically? Will this move make Japan a lot more dependent on the U.S. in the long term?

Syria: Pentagon officials said on March 5 that the U.S.-backed offensive against the Islamic State in eastern Syria was on hold after the Syrian Democratic Forces withdrew from the fight to support the Syrian Kurds under attack in Afrin and other Syrian Kurdish positions on the Turkish border. IS has not gone away and still maintains control over areas in eastern Syria. Will IS seek to take advantage of this lull? More important, is there any way for us to determine how many SDF fighters have left the fight against IS to join the battle in Afrin or other parts of northern Syria? The Syrian Kurds may believe that the U.S. will give up on them and are therefore quitting the coalition against IS.

Uzbekistan, Russia: A delegation from the Uzbek armed forces visited Siberia to observe a Russian military compound in the Central Military District. On one hand, we have seen nascent signs of Uzbekistan improving relations with the U.S., and we’ve talked about how Russia’s declining influence in Central Asia has countries like Uzbekistan moving away from Russia. On the other hand, we have a story like this. Is this a sign of increasing cooperation between Russia and Uzbekistan?

Russia: Russia says it has arrested five members of the Islamic State in Dagestan. Instability in the North Caucasus is a serious tripwire for Russian security, and IS establishing a presence there would certainly qualify as instability. Is Russia facing a serious Islamist challenge in this region?

Tunisia: Tunisia’s prime minister met on March 5 with the head of the Tunisian General Labor Union, one of the most powerful political actors in Tunisia and one that has recently supported popular protests against the government. Reportedly, the union head called for a cabinet reshuffle and also criticized the government over its privatization of public institutions.