July 29 - August 12
Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for July 29 - August 12!
As you’ve no doubt noticed, the Dispatch has been rather inconsistent recently. While I enjoy writing the Dispatch, it’s rather a lot of work, and I’ve been having a hard time balancing it against the rest of my schedule. Because of that, I’m shifting the Dispatch to a biweekly schedule for the foreseeable future. Sorry for the recent inconsistency - as always, the Dispatch is a work in progress!
South China Sea
The Chinese government appointed a legislature of 45 people and a garrison of soldiers to govern a group of small islands in the South China Sea in a move widely seen as an attempt to assert China’s claim to more than 770,000 square miles of disputed territory. China has been increasingly bold in its attempts to assert its claims in the South China Sea, sending patrol ships throughout the region and issuing stern warnings against American intervention in what they see as their territory. Other nations in the region have begun responding to China’s posturing: The Philippines are dramatically increasing military spending and building closer ties with the US, while Vietnam, whose territorial waters most overlap the Chinese claim, announced they would hold live-fire naval exercises in the region.
China’s claims to the sea, the so-called ”nine-dotted line,” overlap the territorial claims of nearly every other country in the region. The country has dramatically stepped up its attempts to assert its claim this year, which has alarmed both neighboring countries and the US. The islands China is claiming aren’t particularly valuable - the five islands covered by China’s new legislators are home to all of 1,100 people - but the sea itself is important to China for several reasons. From a military standpoint, the Chinese are surrounded by US allies, and the territorial waters allotted under the UN maritime treaties are too close to offer any real strategic buffer. Economically, China is determined to ensure they have access to the valuable shipping lanes through the sea. The region is also suspected of having rich deposits of minerals and oil, and are valuable fishing waters. Finally, there’s a historic element here, as well: China has a long history of influence in the region, going back through several dynasties. However, the UN Maritime Treaties were signed during a time when China was cut off from the international community; because of this, China feels it has been unfairly shut out of what is its historic claims, and does not feel particularly bound by the UN agreements. This is likely to be the single largest area of international dispute this year.
The trial of Russian punk band Pussy Riot came to a close this week, with the band members delivering their closing statements on the 8th. The band was arrested in March on charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” following a performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church, in which they decried the Church’s open support for Putin. The trial has become the international face of the Putin regime’s crackdown on dissent, which started shortly after Putin took office for his third term.
A good rule of thumb: If the action you’re contemplating to silence critics of your rule is going to result in several months of your name plus the words “Pussy Riot” showing up in headlines around the world, you might want to reconsider. Newspapers exist to sell copies, and there are no two words in the English language more likely to do so than “Pussy” and “Riot.” Putin’s regime managed to crack down brutally on protestors following his re-election with almost no widespread notice from the wider world, which might be why they thought they could get away with a show trial for the three singers. Pussy Riot is a political performance art group: they exist to draw attention to broken political processes. In that, whatever the court ultimately decides to do with them, the group has succeeded. Nobody watching this farce can have any illusions about the nature of Putin’s rule.
Djibril Bassolé, Burkina Faso’s foreign minister, traveled to northern Mali on the 8th, meeting with Iyad ag Ghali, the head of Ansar Dine, the militant Islamist group which has taken control of the region. Bassolé stated on his return that Ghali “had shown himself open to a negotiated solution.”
Ansar Dine is a group of militant outsiders who exploited the chaos in Libya and a long-running tribal feud to take control of territory that isn’t theirs, impose Sharia on those who don’t want it, destroy ancient artifacts, and create a safe haven for terrorist groups. Their presence in Northern Mali is bad for everyone in the region. It’s not immediately clear what Bassolé is attempting to accomplish here: Ansar Dine wants to keep the territory they took, and presumably everyone else wants them out - This is not a situation that would seem to call for negotiation.
The Guardian reported this week on the plight of Myanmar’s minority Rohingya ethnic group in the wake of sectarian riots which broke out in early June. Following the Military’s declaration of a state of emergency in early June, both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International accused the Burmese police of a widespread campaign of abuses against the Rohingya, who the Burmese government do not consider citizens. Facing a flood of refugees, Bangladesh has passed laws criminalizing sheltering the Rohingya and banned aid groups attempting to help the group.
The state of the Rohingya is a sharp contrast to the otherwise good news out of Myanmar this year. While the country held relatively open democratic elections for the first time this year, the continued repression of various ethnic groups, including the Kachins in the north and the Rohingya in the west, are a serious and continued black mark on the Myanmar government. Elections, no matter how free, are not a license to ignore serious human rights violations for the Myanmar government or the rest of the world.
The Iranian Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council visited both Damascus to meet with the Assad regime and Beirut to meet with the Secretary General of Hezbollah. NightWatch points out that the apparent ease with which the Iranian minister was able to come and go in Damascus doesn’t suggest a region wracked with fighting. The situation in Syria continues to be difficult to assess due to particularly poor or ill-sourced reporting.
Egyptian President Morsi replaced several top military officials, including Field Marshal Tantawi, the head of the military council which ruled Egypt after Mubarak was deposed. The decision was said to have been made in consultation with the armed forces, though it came as a shock to most outsiders; Tantawi has been the face of the Egyptian armed forces through a protracted power struggle with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s too early to tell exactly what this means, but as the move was apparently made in consultation with the armed forces and the military has so far not responded negatively, this looks more like rearranging deck chairs than any legitimate shift in Egypt’s power balance.
Thanks for joining me, and my best for the weeks ahead!