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Friday, July 11, 2014

The Potential Impact of a BRICS Development Bank on Argentina

From July 14th to July16th Brazil will host the 6th Summit of Heads of State and of Government of BRICS. This meeting will likely see the emergence of a BRICS Development Bank that will serve as an alternative to the World Bank, which the BRICS see as too heavily oriented towards Western interests. Though the idea for such a bank has been discussed since 2012 the impact of the Federal Reserve’s tapering on countries such as India and South Africa, Chinese unease over the fluctuation of the US dollar, and the challenges that Russia is facing due to its actions in Ukraine have accelerated this project. One country that could benefit from a BRICS Development Bank is Argentina.

Russia has invited Argentina to the BRICS summit and is supporting the possibility of Argentina joining the organization. This can been seen as part of Moscow's effort to generate good will in order to increase trade and enhance its presence in Latin America. To achieve this end Russia has also canceled 90% of Cuba’s $35 million debt and backed Brazil for a permanent seat on the United Nations’ Security Council. If Argentina joined BRICS, or at least had access to capital from the BRICS Development Bank, it could greatly benefit the country. The reality is that due to the default of 2001 Argentina is a relatively risky place to invest and has struggled to attract capital since the default. Access to the BRICS Development Bank combined with Russia’s efforts to build good will in Latin America via trade and investment could help Argentina attract the capital it so desperately needs.

Argentina will likely seek funding to improve their ports from either the Russians or the BRICS Development Bank. As things stand now the expansion of the Panama Canal and the creation of the Nicaragua Canal will likely make Argentine exports such as soy less competitive as compared to comparable US and Brazilian exports. The latter countries are both closer to the canals and have or are developing their infrastructure to capitalize on this shift in global shipping. The Brazilians in particular have been very active in developing their ports and improving transport from the interior to the coast. Argentina does not want to be left behind. In a worse case scenario the Argentines could find themselves dependent on Brazilian ports thus reducing profits from their exports while enriching their regional rival.



If Argentina is able to attract the capital it needs to be competitive on the global market it could help the country rehabilitate itself economically. A shift to a leadership that is more business friendly could facilitate this process though it is important to note that any attempt for the country to become more economically sustainable would presumably result in cuts to social spending which would likely lead to social instability and a heightening of political risk. That said, Argentines are tired of the country's economic decline and are no doubt acutely aware of how neighboring Uruguay has been flourishing due to its relatively pro-business policies. Argentina has seen political instability in the past. If Buenos Aires can attract capital and survive whatever unrest results from potential economic reforms we could see the country return to the level of economic development that its geography and resource base should afford it.       

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Implications of a Remilitarized Japan

On Thursday Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and New Komeito Party head Natsuo Yamaguchi confirmed that there will be no reinterpretation of the Japanese constitution to permit Collective Defense though the potential for such a shift is still possible. Such a move would be a preliminary step to the normalization of the Japanese military.  Despite this delay it is probable that Japan will remilitarize at some point in the future given that Tokyo can not assume that the United States will always protect Japanese interests. Though there is a great deal of overlap between Washington and Tokyo's interests the reality is that the United States wants its allies to shoulder a greater burden in terms of providing security in their respective regions. Washington has also cut military spending due to the sequester. For these reasons Abe is hoping for the reinterpretation of the constitution by the end of the year to coincide with possible revisions to the guidelines governing US-Japanese defense cooperation. Such a shift will have geopolitical consequences in the Western Pacific  

As things stand now Japan is working with the Philippines in order to protect Tokyo and Manila's mutual interests in the Western Pacific. Japan is helping the Philippines finance patrol boats as well as providing financial assistance to improve communication technology for the Filipino Coast Guard. Filipino President Aquino will be visiting Japan on the 24th of June. China’s activities in the South China Seas and how they should be addressed will likely be discussed during this trip.  This is where collective defense comes in to play as neither country's military is a match for the Chinese however a united front with the participation of countries with similar grievances, such as Vietnam, and possibly with tacit or even explicit US support would be a strong deterrent. Though such a grouping could in theory cause China to behave in a less aggressive manner it is also likely that a united front  could be viewed as a credible enough threat by Beijing that China will feel compelled to take preemptive action to protect its perceived interests. There are several reasons to act sooner rather than later including the reality that China faces significant demographic threats such as an aging population and an increasing dependency ratio. Beijing also needs to make significant economic reforms which will not be popular with the population. For these reasons anything that can boost nationalism in China is in Beijing's interest as it will serve as a distraction. The dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands is an issue which stokes a great deal of nationalist sentiment in China.

If Japan commits to remilitarization and makes overtures to Manila, Hanoi and other countries who are concerned with Beijing’s territorial ambitions it is possible that China will occupy the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands which both Japan and China claim. China's intent will not be to start a war (though there a credible arguments that Beijing will tolerate a short conflict). Beijing will be betting that despite the uproar that such a maneuver will cause the international community will feel that they have too much to lose economically if they push for strong sanctions against China. Certainly, Beijing is looking at the global response to Russia's annexation of Crimea with great interest. If China annexes the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands but manages to convince the international community that it will not interfere with shipping lanes in the region it is possible that many countries outside of the region will fell that any conflict is not worth the economic costs. The problem is that Japan and other regional powers, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, would likely view inaction as appeasement. The thinking in many East and Southeast Asian capitals might be, “If we allow this what next?”. Such a scenario sets the stage for a dramatic escalation in tensions which could impact some of the most important shipping lanes in the world. For this reason we must pay close attention to any signs that Japan will remilitarize as well as any developments that result in closer relations between Japan and countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam even if there is no overt call for Collective Defense. Given that Abe is pushing for a constitutional reinterpretation by the years end we might see significant developments in the South and East China Seas in the coming months.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Implications of Developing Sino-Bangladeshi Relations in the Indian Ocean on International Relations in the South China Sea

This week Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina completed a three day visit to China. One of her primary objectives during the trip was to attract investment to develop a deep-sea port on Sonadia Island in the Bay of Bengal. Though an agreement is still pending such a development would serve as an additional stop along the so-called String of Pearls, a network of ports that the Chinese have helped develop which link East Africa, Southwest Asia, and South Asia to China. A further increase in China's presence in the Indian Ocean and the concomitant increase in trade that would presumably accompany it will be a positive step for Bangladesh even if it could complicate relations between Delhi and Dhaka. What garners less attention is the reality that an increase in China’s presence in the Indian Ocean could also exacerbate tensions in the South China Sea.

If there is a an increase in trade between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea the route will become more valuable. Though the energy resources in the South China Sea are attractive Beijing's primary interest in the region is to have greater control over shipping lanes through which half of the world’s cargo by tonnage passes through each year. China wants to be a great power and great powers are Blue Water Powers (i.e. they have a global naval presence). The problem with a global naval presence is that sovereign powers resent foreign powers imposing themselves near their territory. We have already seen heightened tensions in the South China Sea between China and Vietnam and China and the Philippines with the former allegedly ramming Chinese ships and the latter having filed a case against China in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague accusing Beijing of violating the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). As long as China's neighbors are divided they cannot stand up to China in an effective manner. For this reason it will be important to note if the Philippines and Vietnam decide to cooperate to protect their interests in the South China Sea.

Though Manila and Hanoi have conflicting claims over the Spratly Islands there is evidence that the Vietnamese and Filipinos recognize that they can better protect their respective interests by cooperating. Last Sunday members of the Filipino and Vietnamese navies staged a symbolic display by gathering to play soccer and volleyball and drink beer on the Vietnamese held Southwest Cay in the South China Sea. Though such a gathering is hardly a concrete commitment to mutual defense it does send a message that cooperation is possible. It will be important to monitor if Filipino-Vietnamese relations develop beyond the symbolic and whether or not an agreement between the two countries will gain either direct or indirect support from Japan and the United States. 

The so-called String of Pearls is a potential step to transform China into a Blue Water Power. This process will take decades and will be prone to conflicts. Whether or not these conflicts escalate to the point where diplomacy fails remains to be seen. What is important to note is that
what happens in the Indian Ocean can impact relations in the South and East China Seas. As countries in one region see China enhancing it power in another region they will question how this will impact their long-term interests. It is possible that we will see greater cooperation between the Philippines, Vietnam and a remilitarized Japan with either the explicit or implicit backing of the United States. Such a grouping might be able to provide a balance of power in the Western Pacific but it could also be viewed as a sufficient threat for Beijing to take action to protect Chinese interests. For this reason it is important to monitor factors which could unite countries in the South and East China Seas even if these factors are occurring in another region and their implications are not always immediately evident. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Impact of the European Reassurance Initiative on the Asia-Pacific Region

This week US President Barack Obama unveiled a one billion dollar European Reassurance Fund to help assuage fears amongst the United States' Central and Eastern European allies that Washington is a fair weather friend. Certainly, the Obama Administration’s shift to a foreign policy in which the US is looking to lead from behind rather than take charge has been a cause for concern from Warsaw to Bucharest. The fund will lead to an increase in exercises and a greater rotational presence of American troops in Europe which will serve as a more credible deterrent to Russia if Moscow were to consider military incursions into the Baltic States or Eastern and Central Europe. In the coming days much will be written about the potential effects of this fund on relations between the US, EU and Russia. What is also important to note is that this fund has a symbolic function as it serves as a reminder to the United States' allies in other parts of the world that Washington will support its allies with more than just words. One region where the symbolism of this initiative will be scrutinized closely is in the Asia Pacific Region.

The past few years have seen heightening tensions in the South and East China Seas. Some likely results of these conflicts will be the normalization of Japan's military and new security arrangements such as April’s US-Filipino Deal which gives the US access to military bases in the Philippines for the next ten years. Suffice it to say China does not appreciate such developments. Japan’s rearmament will presumably happen at some point however it is important to note that a gradual, transparent shift will presumably be perceived as less of a threat to Beijing and thus make it less likely that China will feel that it is being forced into a position in which it must take action. By making a public statement that the US will back its European Allies the president is also implying that the United States will not shirk its responsibilities to its Asian allies and in theory could give Tokyo some room to take a less aggressive stance in terms of rearmament. After all, the Obama Administration has made it very clear that the European Reassurance Fund will not detract from American activities in the Asia Pacific Region. In fact the "Pivot" to Asia has been a central feature of the President's foreign policy and this shift will likely be carried on by his successor no matter what political party they represent. 

Reassuring US allies in the Asia Pacific region could also serve a useful purpose in the negotiations of the Trans Pacific Partnership. Washington explicit offer to reassure its Eastern European allies could be perceived as tacit admission that the US will back its partners in the Asia Pacific given that the region is far more economically significant to the United States than Central and Eastern Europe. Implied reassurance that the US will do what is necessary to keep strategic shipping lanes in the East and South China Seas open will not harm negotiations. This is of particular importance as some of the rumored proposals of the agreement, such as provisions targeting currency manipulation and restrictions on the origin countries for inputs for textile production, appear to be designed to exclude China. Though the actual terms of the Trans Pacific Partnership will not be known until the final proposal is ready for ratification it is safe to say that China will not want to see its interests threatened and that Beijing will take what it perceives as appropriate action to counter such threats. Recent conflicts between China and Vietnam and China and the Philippines demonstrate that Beijing is not adverse to using its military to protect its territorial claims while history has shown us that small skirmishes can escalate quickly. The European Reassurance Fund serves as a sign that the Untied States will back its allies.

Though the fund is an important development funding resistance and actively taking part in military operations should the need arise are entirely different things. In an actual war a billion dollars is not that much money and, thought the US is planning on rotating more troops through Europe, the permanent US military presence that Poland has requested is currently being denied. Numerous capitals in the Asia-Pacific region are no doubt aware of this reality. That said, the fund will likely be welcomed by US allies in the Asia Pacific region as a positive sign that the United States is a dependable ally. At the end of the day this is a fairly affordable way for President Obama to demonstrate to US allies that, despite a change in US foreign policy, the United States is a friend that can be trusted.  

Friday, May 23, 2014

Russia’s Shift to the East and It’s Potential Impact on September’s Caspian 5 Summit

On Wednesday May 21st Russia and China agreed to a 30-year natural gas deal worth $400 Billion. This agreement serves as a clear indication that Moscow recognizes Russia’s need to diversify its client base. Though all of the terms of the deal are unclear it would appear that the Chinese were able to get the pricing that they wanted (a factor which had delayed this deal for a decade). Moscow would not have agreed to China’s price if it were not in Russia’s interest. In the past this price was not beneficial for Russia but recently a variety of factors such as Iranian-American détente, the situation in Ukraine, and the reality that Russia will be facing demographic challenges in the coming years has changed the equation. The deal will allow Russia to demonstrate that it has options other than European market as well as affording Moscow the opportunity to focus its attention on other areas where its interests are threatened. The Caspian is once such place.

On September 29th the Caspian 5 (Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Iran) will meet in the Russian city of Astrakhan to discuss the management of the Caspian Sea. This summit could serve as a starting point for Russia to ensure that Russian companies have a stake in any potential agreement which would see oil and natural gas pipelines running through Iranian or Turkish territory. Such a move would give Russia a degree of control over energy resources that bypass Russian territory and would presumably be lucrative. In the past it was in Russia’s interest to hinder the development of transit routes which did not pass through Russian territory. Now Moscow’s ability to interfere could be weakened especially if Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia cooperate. If the infrastructure is going to be built and Russia is less dependent on European markets Moscow could have a financial interest in aiding the exploitation of energy resources rather than hindering projects. It is also possible that Russia could have a degree of control over the operations of key infrastructure. Pipelines that bypass Russian territory are by no means an ideal development for Russia but if this outcome is inevitable Moscow will ensure that the situation evolves in the manner that is most beneficial to Russian interests. The fact that Russia is a significant regional player means that it has leverage. Even in a weakened state Moscow can project power. For example, in 1993 Russia demanded that Lukoil be awarded a 10% stake in a consortium to develop Azerbaijan’s offshore oil fields. Baku consented. Given that China will have a 19% stake in Rosneft means that Beijing might also become a player in the region as well if Rosneft is involved in any deals (a likely scenario). This would add an additional dimension to the geopolitical situation in the Caspian.

Wednesday’s deal allows Russia to demonstrate that in the coming years it will have alternatives to the European market. The reality is that Europe has an interest in diversifying its energy supplies while Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkey appear to be coming to some sort of agreement which could potentially see the development of transit corridors which link Caspian energy resources to the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. The United States also has a variety of interests in undermining Russia’s energy exports. Essentially, this shift is inevitable.  Moscow clearly understands this and is now making the best arrangements that it can. The terms of the China-Russia gas deal seem to favor Beijing. That said, Moscow is powerful enough to presumably force agreements in the Caspian that will favor Russia. September’s summit will provide insight into how this story will progress.   

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Impact of the Ukrainian Conflict on Russia’s Arctic Ambitions

When territory becomes more valuable competition over the land in question becomes more intense. For example, we are currently seeing such a drama unfold in the South and East China Seas due to the regions’ valuable energy resources, the importance of the territories’ shipping lanes, and the pressure that unfavorable demographic trajectories are placing on regional players. In the coming decades we will likely see a similar dynamic unfold in the Arctic, however, the hemorrhaging of capital from Russia due to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the need to maintain an active military presence near Ukraine are diverting resources away from other areas of Russian concern. This reality could complicate the country’s Arctic ambitions.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration speculates that the Arctic could hold approximately 22% of the planet’s undiscovered conventional oil and natural gas resources. The region also has significant deposits of nickel, copper, coal, gold, uranium, tungsten, iron and diamonds. Historically, the cost of exploiting these resources has been prohibitively expensive. However, the combination of technological advances, such as improved offshore production systems, three-dimensional seismic surveys, and improved drilling and completion techniques combined with retreating ice sheets are changing this dynamic. The Arctic also has shipping lanes that will see much more use as the planet continues to warm. The Northern Passage, which runs along Russia’s northern coast linking Europe with East Asia, is a transport corridor that is approximately 20% shorter than routes that transverse the Suez Canal. Some estimates predict that by 2030 25% of shipments from Europe to East Asia will use this passage. Though weather, the lack of search and rescue infrastructure, and high insurance costs currently limit the utility of this route at the present it is reasonable to believe that the Northern Passage will see more usage as the planet warms.

Events in Ukraine are distracting Russia at a time when Moscow should be aggressively staking its claims to the Arctic. Resolving the inevitable territorial disputes that will emerge as Arctic shipping lanes become more important and the exploitation of natural resources in the region increase will be a strategic imperative for Russia. It is in Moscow’s interest to aggressively pursues such policies now while the country’s demographic, military and economic strength are stronger than they might be in coming decades. Suffice it to say, the situation in Ukraine is reducing Russia’s ability to protect its long-term interests. Though maintaining Ukraine as a buffer state is a necessity for Russia it is in Moscow’s interest to try and resolve this conflict as quickly as possibly so that the country does not neglect its long term interests in other regions.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Why Russia Will Ultimately Compensate Ukraine for Crimea

Currently, Moscow is facing sanctions from the West (toothless though they may be), there is a significant military build up on the Ukrainian border and, according to the IMF, Russia is in a recession with more capital expected to flee the country. For these reasons the idea that Russia would pay Ukraine for Crimea is not a widely held belief. However, in the long term there are several factors that make it likely that Moscow will ultimately offer some form of payment to Kiev.

Despite current geopolitical and economic obstacles Russia is relatively strong, however, the country is facing significant demographic challenges. Per the World Bank, 1988 was the last time the Total Fertility Rate was 2.1 (the replacement rate). From 1991 to 2011 this metric has fluctuated between 1.2 and 1.6 while the dependency ratio is 40 and growing. This means that Russia will likely be weakened both economically and militarily in the coming decades. For this reason Moscow has an incentive to cement agreements that protect Russian interests while the country is experiencing a period of relative weakness. Sooner or later legitimizing the possession of Crimea via some form of compensation will be necessary. Though the deal will have been forced, it will also have been finalized.

Ukraine owes a significant amount of money to Russian companies, such as Gazprom, as well as international lenders (e.g. the IMF), and a variety of European banks and businesses. By compensating Ukraine for the annexation of Crimea Moscow would essentially be disbursing money which would ultimately flow back into the Russian economy while simultaneously protecting the interests of its European business partners. Essentially, the end result would be that Russia forced the sale of a territory of strategic importance to Moscow since it had become clear that Kiev could not be counted on the protect Russian interests. With the deal legitimized, Ukraine’s debt would be pared down to more manageable levels. That said, a Ukrainian default is still a very real concern. The IMF did not authorize a $17.1 billion bailout out of charity. The financial contagion that a Ukrainian default would engender would be extremely problematic to say the least and thus must be prevented. The IMF deal requires raising taxes and energy prices. Given that Kiev could not afford discounted gas it is unclear how Ukrainians will deal with this price hike. For this reason continued political instability in the country is likely. Despite this problem, any capital inflow (especially a compensation package that does not need to be repaid in the manner that a loan would) could put Ukraine on a path to ultimately regain a degree of economic self sufficiency and in theory become a stronger trade partner for both Russia and Europe. This process will not be easy and will need to be monitored closely.  

Maintaining a favorable buffer against neighboring countries has long been a key concern of Russia. This is why ensuring the compliance of states such as Ukraine and Belarus has been a strategic imperative for Moscow. The leverage that comes with controlling the energy supply for many of its neighbors has been a useful foreign policy tool for Moscow in recent years. Not surprisingly Russia’s neighbors do not like this dependency. There are movements to undermine Russia’s leverage which naturally goes against Moscow’s interests and if Russia is distracted with Ukraine it has fewer resources to undermining these movements. There are numerous areas of concern for Moscow. For example, it is likely that US-Iranian détente will result in the development of energy pipelines linking the Caspian to the Persian Gulf and the further development of infrastructure connecting Azerbaijan with Turkey. We are already seeing some improvements in Azeri-Iranian relations that testify to this. September’s meeting of the Caspian 5 (Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan) will be an important summit to monitor. Another story to follow is the memorandum of intent that Ukraine and Slovakia signed on Monday April 28th. If the deal goes through the reverse flow of gas from Slovakia into Ukraine will commence in October. This will reduce Ukraine's dependency on Russian gas. Presumably, Moscow will try to undermine this deal.

While compensation for Crimea will not likely be paid out anytime soon such an action would help legitimize Russia’s claim to Crimea and could help ensure potential investors that the country is safe for business. Keep in mind it is in both Moscow’s and Western businesses’ interest to keep political instability in Russia at a minimum. Compensation is a means towards that end. For this reason, if Moscow starts making noise about offering some form of compensation for Crimea it could be a sign of improving business conditions in Russia.  

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Potential Impact of Improving Azeri-Iranian Relations on the Extraction of Oil and Natural Gas from the Caspian Sea

Last week Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran. These meetings mark a significant step towards improving relations between the two countries which have been strained in recent years due to Iran’s displeasure with Azerbaijan’s positive relations with the United States and Israel, Azerbaijan’s distaste for former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and accusations from both sides that the other side was interfering with their internal affairs. The potential for US-Iranian détente and fear over Russia’s actions in the Caucasus have removed an impediment for dialogue and created an incentive to cooperate respectively. Such cooperation could have a significant impact on regional energy cooperation which will likely affect global energy markets.

One result of improved Azeri-Iranian relations could be the development of oil and natural gas pipelines that link the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf. Such a route was not feasible in recent years for a variety of reasons such as poor relations between Baku and Tehran, US Sanctions, and Russian pressure. Now we find ourselves in situation where Azerbaijan has an interest in improving relations with Iran while knowing that such an attempt is unlikely to damage Baku’s relationship with Washington. In fact Washington will likely support such a move as the US has an interest in undermining Russia’s energy policy. The EU and Turkey will also support an improvement in Azeri-Iranian relations as Brussels and Ankara  have a long-term interest in diversifying their energy supplies. Such a move goes against Russian interests. It should be noted that during the visit President Aliyev was quoted as saying, "Many powers do not want a friendship between Iran and Azerbaijan, and are after disrupting this relationship. The officials of the two countries must make efforts to counter these steps." Presumably he was talking about Russia.

Russia’s regional military presence puts pressure on Azerbaijan which forces Baku to exercise caution with regards to any actions that could undermine Russia's energy interests. Currently, Russia has troops based in neighboring Armenia and in the Georgian break away republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. At the present there is no indication that Moscow has any plans to invade Azerbaijan. That said, Russia annexation of Crimea and the 2008 Russian-Georgian War serve as testaments that Moscow will act decisively to protect Russian interests. Suffice it to say Russia's regional military presence does not sit well with Baku. By improving relations with Iran and maintaining positive relations with Turkey and Georgia, Azerbaijan could gain support against Russia. An indicator that will likely precede significant energy cooperation is a security agreement between Tehran and Baku with the potential involvement of Ankara and Tbilisi. The reality is that significant cooperation in the region goes against Russian interests thus a credible deterrent will need to precede any developments in energy policy that go against Moscow’s interests. Azerbaijan by itself is too weak to counter any threats from Russia, however, if Baku is credibly backed by Tehran and Ankara, Moscow will have to be more careful in how it responds to any shifts in Azerbaijani energy policy that go against Russian interests.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Potential Precedents That Could Be Set By The Philippines’ Lawsuit Against China Concerning Beijing’s Actions In The South China Sea

This week the Philippines filed a lawsuit with the United Nation’s Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. The suit alleges that China’s actions in the South China Sea violate Filipino territorial integrity as defined under the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea. Beijing claims most of the South China Sea via its 9 Dash Line (the demarcation line that China uses to justify its claim to most of the South China Sea) and has occupied territory such as Scarborough Shoal, Mischief Reef, and Second Thomas Shoal. In some cases China has gone far beyond setting up mere outposts. In 2012 Beijing established Sansha City on Yongxing Island. Sansha is a prefecture which is designed to administer the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands and the Macclesfield Bank. Essentially, China has been pursuing a policy of de facto annexation in the hope that in time Beijing will be able to force de jure recognition of Chinese claims to the territory. Suffice it to say, China’s neighbors are not happy with this approach which is why the Philippines filed the lawsuit in the first place. No matter who wins the suit the legal precedent will have a major impact on security concerns in the South and East China Seas.


The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea came into effect in 1994. The law’s mandate is as follow:

"The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea lays down a comprehensive regime of law and order in the world's oceans and seas establishing rules governing all uses of the oceans and their resources."

One of the key stipulations of the law is that it sets Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) as being 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers/230 miles) from a state’s maritime borders. Both China and the Philippines are signatories of the law (as is Japan, which we will discuss shortly). One of the areas occupied by China is Scarborough Shoal, which is only 220 km from the Philippines, but is 857 km from China. China claims that it has a right to the territory as Beijing claims that the Chinese have fished in the region as far back as 960 C.E. It is important to note that a finding in favor of China could set a legal precedent that implies that a country will have the right to exploit the resources of another country’s EEZ if it had used the territory at some point in the past. It is safe to say that such a finding could greatly complicate other territorial disputes.


If the court rules in favor of the Philippines it is unlikely that China will change its polices in the region in any significant manner. Beijing has no interest in reducing its presence in a region that sees half of the world’s shipping by tonnage pass through it each year. Essentially, great powers dominate the sea thus if China aspires for greatness Beijing must be able to dominate the South and East China Seas in the same manner that the United States has been able to dominate the waters of the Americas. China is also likely to face a degree of domestic instability in the coming years as it makes structural reforms, such as reigning in its shadow banking sector, which will likely be unpopular. It is also important to note that China's actions in the South China's Sea are very popular amongst a significant portion of the Chinese population. Stoking nationalist sentiment can help to maintain social stability during a time of unpopular reform.


If the lawsuit favors the Philippines the ruling could actually support China's strategic interests in the East China Seas. In September of 2012 Japan nationalized the Diaoyu/Senkuku Islands. This action angered Beijing who said that China would not, "sit back and watch its territorial sovereignty violated." Since then both sides have strengthen their security presence in the region. China also imposed an Air Defense Identification Zone over the region in November of 2013. A ruling against China’s actions in the South China Sea could set a legal precedent that could apply to Japan’s actions in the East China Sea. Whether or not this would reduce tension remains to be seen, as both countries will presumably act in their perceived interests. That said, a legal ruling could allow the countries to make some concessions while saving face. This is important as tensions are only going to get worse. For example, it is likely that Japan will reform its pacifist constitution (which could trigger a preemptive Chinese response in the East China Sea). Such an action would further complicate a difficult situation. Given that the United States will back Japan, and is making security arrangements with other regional players such as the Philippines, we find ourselves in a context where tensions could escalate quickly and result in a large, long-term conflict. Anything that could ameliorate this situation, such as the potentially face saving option that a legal ruling could provide, should be monitored closely. After all, instability in shipping zones as important as the South and East China Seas impacts most of the global supply chain and thus the vast majority of the world’s population.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Implications of Myanmar’s Census

From March 30th until April 10th Myanmar will conduct its first census since 1983. On the surface this would appear to be a reasonable action as a great deal has changed in the last thirty plus years, not the least of which has been the country's emergence from isolation. The problem is that the census is likely to enflame ethnic tensions. The instability that the census could provoke will be one of the most significant challenges that Myanmar has encountered since it has begun re-engaging with the international community. Therefore, it is important to monitor how Naypyidaw handles this potential unrest. A good performance would send a very positive signal to investors. A poor handling of the situation could see investors hold back and would likely see the Chinese attempt to regain some of the leverage that Beijing has lost as the West has begun to reengage with Myanmar.

Ethnic insurgency has long been a key concern in Myanmar. After the assassination of independence hero Aung San many ethnic groups, such as the Karen, launched armed insurgencies. These struggles have been going on for decades and the census could potentially undo some of the progress that Naypyidaw has made in pursuing peace talks with the rebels. A key problem with the census is that significant ethnic minority groups such as the Karen, Shan and Chin were not consulted in the development of the census questions, thus, the census has a variety of subgroups for minorities, such as the Chin, which the groups in question do not recognize. The suspicion is that the format of the census will make these groups appear divided and thus undermine their interests. Though, census takers, especially those of mixed ethnicity, have the option of clarifying their background there are concerns that this will result in them being grouped under a catchall "foreigners" tag. In addition to this the Muslim minority Rohingyas of Rakhine State will not be included. Essentially, the census looks like it only supports the interests of the majority Burmens.

If the census results in heightened political instability it is likely that Beijing will try to exploit the situation to its advantage. China’s interests in Myanmar are both strategic and economic. The country provides Beijing with energy resources and access to the Indian Ocean, the latter of which is essential for the development of parts of China’s interior such as Yunnan Province. For this reason Beijing will invest in Myanmar even if the country is experiencing a degree of political instability. In fact China was Myanmar’s only significant investor from the 1980s until the country began reforms in 2011. Beijing feels that Washington is pursuing a containment strategy against China and will likely seize the opportunity to cement its interests in the country if the United States and other western powers temporarily back off due to political instability. For these reasons we should monitor both how Naypyidaw addresses the ethnic tensions which the census is likely to provoke as well as China’s (and to a lesser degree India’s) actions if political instability causes western powers to back off. The reality is that Myanmar is poor due to decades of poor governance not a lack of resources. The country could develop relatively quickly if given the chance. How it will develop will be influenced by foreign investors so knowing who is investing and what their interests are is essential for forecasting how Myanmar will develop.