April 9 - April 15
Welcome to the Dispatch for April 9 - 15!
Sudan & South Sudan
The simmering conflict between Sudan and South Sudan took another step towards outright war this week when South Sudan took over the town of Heglig, a disputed city home to Sudan’s largest oilfield. The African Union decried the move as “illegal,” and Sudan responded with airstrikes. Skirmishes continued throughout the week, dimming prospects of a peaceful resolution.
South Sudan gained its independence after a long civil war, a brokered peace treaty, and a referendum in January 2011. While relations between the two countries were only ever cordial at best, the largest conflict was over oil: South Sudan holds more than 75% of the combined countries’ oil, while Sudan holds the pipeline and port required to get it to market. After Sudan threatened to take what it wanted from the pipes, South Sudan shut down oil production and threatened to build a pipeline through Kenya, a process that would take at least a year. There’s little hope for a peaceful agreement and both countries are suffering for lack of revenue. Sudan may have a harder road ahead than South Sudan: like many regimes, the government of Omar al-Bashir has stayed afloat through bribes furnished through oil money. Without oil money for bribes, the government’s days are numbered, and the only other group in the country with any power are the Islamists who invited Bin Laden to set up camp in the mid-1990s.
After weeks of buildup, North Korean’s much anticipated satellite launch ended in failure, with the rocket breaking up over the Pacific. Two days later, Kim Jong-Un, in his first address to the nation, declared military technology continued to be the top priority, extolling the progress made by his father and grandfather.
The rocket’s failure is humiliating for North Korea: staged to celebrate the 100th birthday of Kim Il-Sung, the founder of the nation, it was meant to show how far the country had come. The launch was a thinly veiled demonstration of the country’s missile technology — an NBC correspondent who saw the actual satellite expressed doubts about whether it was real or just a mock — and the launch came at the cost of scuttling a deal for more than $200m in American food aid. Kim Jong-Un’s speech to the nation, though, was an interesting development: his father, Kim Jong-Il, rarely ever spoke in public. Kim Jong- Un’s willingness to speak publicly and apparently likeness to his grandfather, practically a deity in North Korea, may prove his most useful assets, especially during what’s rumored to be a messy succession.
South Korea warned earlier in the week it saw signs of preparations for a nuclear test; in light of the failed rocket launch it’s definitely possible the North will attempt to repair some of the damage to its image with a new nuclear test.
In a sweeping decision on Saturday, Egypt’s High Election Commission disqualified 10 candidates for president, including the three front runners: Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s intelligence chief, seen as the military’s candidate, was disqualified because the 30,000 signatures he needed to run could not be verified; Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a Salafist representing ultra-conservative Islamists known for his vitrolic anti-West speeches, was disqualified because his mother was an American citizen; and Khairat el-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, was disqualified due to a prior conviction under the Mubarak regime.
Omar Suleiman’s departure from the race is a bit of good news for Egypt; it’s hard to see him as anything but a representative of the military and the old regime. Likewise, Abu Ismail’s disqualification should sooth some nerves in the West, though the well-timed discovery of papers verifying his mother’s American citizenship do imply some outside help in the process. The concern now is how the Salafis will respond to seeing their candidate removed, especially with apparent help from their avowed enemies in the West. The Muslim Brotherhood suspected el-Shater’s candidacy might not pass muster, so they have another candidate ready to take his place if need be.
This is a strange bit of news altogether, though. Suleiman was seen as the military’s man - to have him disqualified by a commission appointed by Mubarak is rather surprising. It’s absolutely possible - hell, it’s likely - that the court action is completely above board and as-reported, but given everything else Egypt has been through, I’m not sure I’ll believe this one until the military actually abdicates control of the country.
Iran, the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China met for the first round of talks aimed at resolving the nuclear impasse. No concrete steps were made, but the six countries were satisfied that the Iranians were serious about negotiating this time (the 2011 talks ended almost immediately), and follow-up talks were scheduled for May 23.
Iran is obviously playing for time: the longer they can keep negotiations going, the longer they can forestall any military action, and the better any negotiated agreement is likely to be. That said, I suspect the six nations are playing for time too: Nobody wants a war with Iran, and as long as the negotiations are ongoing and appear fruitful, the international community can pressure Israel to refrain from attacking. The consensus is that Iran’s goal isn’t to have a nuclear weapon right now, but they do want to have the option of making one if they need to. The only country with a serious objection to a non-nuclear but “screwdriver-ready” Iran is Israel: the rest of the international community is more concerned about avoiding another long and costly conflict in the Middle East.
Foreign Policy published a piece by Hossein Mousavian which does an excellent job detailing the many reasons Iran has to be mistrustful of the West. Negotiations are a two-way street, and there aren’t too many compelling reasons for the Iranians to expect the West to hold up their end of the bargain.
Summit of the Americas
The Summit of the Americas was held this week in Colombia. Unsurprisingly, drug policy was the headline topic, with the Colombian president proposing a global taskforce to overhaul drug policy around the world, though President Obama flatly rejected any talk of legalization. The talks ended without any consensus statements, though, largely due to concerns over the continued exclusion of Cuba from the meetings.
The drug issue is the 900lb gorilla of intra-American relations. The United States is the largest consumer by far of illicit drugs, but most of the costs of dealing with the issue have been borne by Central- and South-American countries, and there’s ample reason to criticize the current policy. This week, the AP reported that there were signs the Zetas, a paramilitary narco-cartel formed by former Mexican special forces trained by the US, and Mara Salvatrucha, a Guatemalan group made of gang members deported from the US, were beginning to work together in Guatemala. Both groups sprang from US efforts to crack down on the drug problem, and both have grown into a huge threat to Central American security. It’s no wonder patience is wearing thin south of the US border.
The second point of contention between the US and the rest of the Americas is Cuba: but for some small changes in immigration, US policy towards Cuba hasn’t changed since the Cold War, and the rest of Latin America has run out of patience with the US position. Cuba may be nation non grata to the US, but its ties with the rest of the Americas - especially Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela - are rather strong. The United States’ continued insistence on barring Cuba from the Summit is starting to cost us diplomatically.
Ultimately, between Brazil’s ascendency as a global power, the Americas’ growing fatigue with heavy-handed and tone-deaf policy from the US, and the spread of Mercosur (the South American equivalent of the European Union), the American nations are finding themselves less reliant on the US and less willing to accede to US demands in the region.
South China Sea
The Philippines and China found themselves in a standoff this week when the Philippine navy tried to arrest the crews of 8 Chinese fishing boats for illegal poaching. Two Chinese surveillance vessels arrived and positioned themselves in the way of the Philippine ship, sparking a three-day standoff over a small shoal 140mi off the Philippine coast. The standoff was resolved on Saturday, with all 8 Chinese ships returning to China.
China has been increasingly assertive in its claims to territory in the South China Sea. China claims most of the sea as its territory, a claim disputed in various places by the Philippines, Viet Nam, Japan, and Indonesia. Most of the disputees are US allies or signatories, which is why the disputes are so tense: the Chinese see any US infringement in the region as a direct challenge. As China grows more assertive, I expect this region to get more volatile.
Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!