The present global atmosphere presents a set of frustrating challenges to American policy makers. With the MH17 tragedy in Ukraine, the continued destabilization of Iraq, and the on-going and very public violence in Israel and Palestine, it is understandable that legislators would turn to the United States’ backyard in pursuit of an easy win. That would appear to be part of the motivation for the House of Representatives’ passage, and the Senate’s consideration, of sanctions against the Venezuelan government in recent weeks. But Venezuela is a unique geopolitical situation, and the sanctions that have had some success chastening Russia and bringing Iran to the negotiating table would likely have limited success in changing the calculus of Nicolás Maduro’s government. In fact, sanctions could have the opposite effect.
If Prime Minister Erdoğan is to be taken at his word, we can officially declare Israeli-Turkish rapprochement dead. Speaking this morning, Erdoğan announced that under no circumstances will Turkey’s relationship with Israel improve as long as he is in power – which after the presidential elections next month, will be for a long time – and that the West can protest all it likes to no avail.
Secretary of State John Kerry recently joined other foreign ministers of the P5+1 and Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister in Vienna, as the self-imposed deadline for a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program approaches. Sunday’s deadline will have huge ramifications for both Washington and Tehran. President Obama is already facing multiple crises in the Middle East: ISIS in Iraq, the ongoing civil war in Syria, and the recent clashes between Hamas and Israel in Gaza.
As Hamas continues firing rockets (and allowing other groups to fire rockets) at Israel from Gaza, and Israel responds with airstrikes, people are beginning to wonder how this round of fighting will end. During Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, a ceasefire was brokered with U.S. and Egyptian intervention – and we can debate all day about how much Mohamed Morsi himself had to do with that, although my sense is that his role was overstated – but this time around such intervention does not seem to be coming.
In May the world was jolted to learn that China sank Vietnamese vessels that were trying to stop Beijing from putting an oil rig in the South China Sea (SCS). Along with its vast reserves of untapped natural gas, the South China Sea is also important as a shipping route. The Republic of Korea (ROK), a rising regional power and close economic partner to China, has a vested interest in any conflict in the SCS. South Korea’s economic growth strategy in the last decade has been heavily export oriented, and currently, exports account for over half of the country’s GDP. This increased dependence on exports has affected the ROK-China relationship. Last year, China accounted for over a quarter of South Korea’s total exports.
A high-level EU meeting over Russia is to be held in Brussels. Prior to the meeting, US Secretary of State John Kerry has pressed for Russia to face toughened sanctions, unless it takes concrete steps to stop armed separatists in eastern Ukraine. European leaders, also, are expected to consider imposing more economic sanctions on Russia and to sign a free-trade accord with Ukraine.
On Nov. 24, 2013, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the P5+1 reached a historical agreement known as the ‘Joint Plan of Action’ in Geneva. After numerous dead ends during intense diplomatic negotiations with the previous government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the interim agreement signed with the newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani, relieved many countries. The United Arab Emirates was the first Gulf state to welcome the Iranian nuclear deal by sending their minister of foreign affairs, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, to Tehran on Nov. 28, just a few days after the signing of the nuclear deal.
Positive remarks on the agreement were also issued by India, Japan, Spain and Austria. On Nov. 24, Japan’s foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, welcomed the agreement as the “first significant step.” Spain’s government praised the deal as an important milestone towards achieving a general agreement that fosters stability and security in the region. German media, while appreciating the significance of the nuclear deal, emphasized that the bulk of sanctions on Iran must remain in place. However, several nations such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, along with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), continued to express concerns and scepticism towards a final agreement.
The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has prompted Chinese citizens to pressure their government to react harshly to Malaysia’s perceived incompetence. Purtrajaya’s lack of transparency on the subject, and Beijing’s sensitivity to domestic populism, have fueled the angry rhetoric Chinese officials have directed toward their Malaysian counterparts. Yet, in spite of the bilateral tension created by MH370, China is likely to remain cautious about taking actions that could jeopardize its partnership with Malaysia, given the country’s importance in the region’s geopolitical landscape and its warming relations with Washington.
China has a history of encouraging its citizens to rise up against foreign powers when Chinese people or property have been done wrong. The best recent example of this was the mistaken bombing by the U.S. of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999. A firestorm of protest followed across China, culminating in daily attacks on the U.S. embassy in Beijing by Chinese citizens armed with rocks. The Chinese government tacitly encouraged this response – a useful way for Chinese citizens to blow off some steam, while sending a strong message to America.
Perhaps the most perplexing element of the ongoing (and going and going…) Israeli and Palestinian conflict is that nearly every effort to bring resolution is met with the same stubborn fate of failure, despite changes in players, interests, contexts and environments over the last 60 years.
As this latest attempt ends with more of a whimper than a bang, it is worth asking, was this conclusion forgone from the beginning? Is another outcome ever possible? We suggest that the best way to answer this is to examine the three primary parties involved in the newly ended talks and we contend that the reason for the failure – and perhaps another year’s success – lies less with lines on a map and more with perceptions of strategic reality.
The Israeli Story
We can begin the discussion with Israel, a state increasingly internally divided about the role citizens should play in the future of the state. Right now, of course, Israel is led by Likud Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu – a man who has traditionally favored a hawkish and conservative approach to the so-called peace process, and who has more recently been a vocal supporter of a two state solution. However, Netanyahu is increasingly at the mercy of the ideologically opposed but strategically aligned Jewish Home and Yesh Atid parties whose continued support determines the sustainability of Netanyahu’s governing coalition. The Jewish Home and Yesh Atid fundamentally disagree about what role Israel should play in the peace talks.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement at Davos that the relationship between Japan and China is the same as that between Great Britain and Germany prior to the First World War has drawn a sharp response from world leaders.
The political turmoil in the East China Sea between Japan and China has reached unprecedented heights to a level where leaders of both countries are not talking to each other. The situation is quite alarming considering the huge economic repercussions a conflict between the two countries could have on the world economy. The Japanese prime minister’s recent visit to the Yasukuni Shrine last year coupled with aggressive nationalist policies have worsened the situation. The recent air defense identification zone (ADIZ) declared by China over the disputed Senkaku/Daioyu Islands has caused the situation to deteriorate further as Japan considers these islands as part of Japan. Both the countries are playing a game of cat and mouse and testing each other’s capabilities and limits.
Japan fears China’s rise and its rapid military modernization in the region as a threat to its very existence. What Japan fears is that China might gain control of both the East China and South China Seas thereby holding Japan ransom and crippling its already struggling economy. Japan’s recent National Security Strategy clearly identifies China as the troublemaker in the region. In response to China’s military buildup, Japan has increased its defense budget to counter a perceived Chinese threat. The bulk of the defense budget will be spent on acquiring maritime surveillance units. Japan will spend around $250 billion USD over the next 5 years to keep Chinese forces in check. Concerns about China’s opaque decision-making process and its intentions in the region are troubling for Japan. China’s use of force and coercion to enforce its claims with blatant disregard for international law and order has propelled the Japanese government to have a look at its peace constitution, which enforces a ban on offensive military capabilities.
China’s economy requires increased access to resources, especially when managing the needs of approximately 20% of the world’s population.
China’s growing energy needs and overlapping territorial claims in the resource-rich South China Sea place their energy security on a collision course with its smaller, weaker neighbors. The most recent issue is China’s increasingly hard-lined approach to the Scarborough Reef, approximately 4 times farther away from China than it is to the Philippines.
China backs its South China Sea claims through a Chinese map produced in 1947, Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai’s 1951 statement, and the discovery of the Belitung Wreck in 1998. Please make your own opinions regarding the legitimacy of a map created in 1947 citing a historical claim. Minister Zhou’s statement denounced the San Francisco Peace Treaty – as China was not invited – and further declared Chinese ownership of the Spratly, Paracel, and Pratas Islands.
A US deadline for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians has ended without an agreement being reached. Talks resumed in July after a three-year hiatus but made little progress. The latest round was halted by Israel last week after the main Palestinian factions announced a political pact. US Secretary of State John Kerry meanwhile has issued a statement denying he believed Israel could become “an apartheid state” after drawing criticism over recorded remarks. On Monday, in comments captured in a recording of a closed-door meeting, he warned that Israel risked becoming “an apartheid state” if a two-state solution was not reached soon.
“A two-state solution will be clearly underscored as the only real alternative,” Mr. Kerry said, according to the comments published in the Daily Beast, which published his comments. “Because a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens – or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state.”
The ongoing crisis in Ukraine, which has seen the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, has generated two important legal questions.
The first one relates to whether Russia has violated international law with respect to the territorial integrity and political independence of Ukraine. The second question relates to the legality of the referendum in Crimea whereby it has chosen to become a part of Russia. With regard to the first question, the UN Charter imposes via Article 2(3) the obligation upon nations to settle international disputes by peaceful means. Article 2(4) prohibits members from using force or the threat of force against another state’s territorial integrity and political independence. The use of force is however permitted in a situation where the UN Security Council has authorized such action to maintain or restore international peace and security or where a state exercises its inherent right of self defence as recognized in Article 51.
In addition to violation of the provisions of the UN Charter, it has been argued that Russia is in violation of the 1975 Final Act of the Conference on Security & Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Accords) which reaffirmed the obligation of its signatories to respect each other’s territorial integrity and borders as inviolable in addition to refraining from the use of threat of use of force. These are commitments that were echoed in the 1994 Memorandum on Security Assurances in connection with Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on the NPT (the Budapest Memorandum) and the 1997 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation & Partnership between Ukraine and the Russian Federation. Further, Ukraine says Russia is violating the Black Sea Fleet Agreements and the 1999 agreement between the Cabinet of Ministers on the Use of Airspace of Ukraine and of Airspace Over the Black Sea, which places caps on Russian troop levels in Crimea and mandates prior approval of Ukrainian authorities before making any troop movements.
The United States may be heading for another Red Line moment–this time with China. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel making his fourth trip to the South China Sea region recently, wanted to reassure Japan and other nations that the U.S. stands with them if China pursues stated territorial annexation. The “Sleeping Dragon” has arisen, hungry for the small mostly uninhabited islands in the East and South China Sea claimed by Japan, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan. Mr. Hagel’s visit comes on the heels of Russia’s takeover of Crimea which had been part of Ukraine.