Scrapping over Scarborough and Spratly

The US avoids wading in too deeply to the South China Sea maritime disputes

On Friday 8 June, Barack Obama welcomed Philippine president Benigno Aquino to the White House for talks on wide range of issues. There is much to link the two countries, which were one pretty much part of the same nation following the US annexation of the archipelago from 1898-1946. There are economic ties, linguistic ties and, importantly, military ties, (although they are a bit topsy-turvy). Manila often buys warships from Washington and the US Pacific patrols keep a watchful eye on what is going in the South China Sea region but in 1992 the Philippines booted the Americans out of their Subic Bay naval base.

Yesterday the US agreed to help out on another level: maritime surveillance. The Philippines are going to receive American aid to establish a National Coast Watch Centre, which seems, on the surface, an unassuming gesture between two oceanic friends. The Philippines certainly has a lot of coastline to guard as it is composed of more than 7,000 islands. There are also two collections of rocks, islets and reefs in the South China Sea that Manila would like some more assistance inspecting: Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands.

And it is on this issue that the US support for setting up a National Coast Watch Centre takes on a new twist: China also covets the two archipelagoes. There are large oil and gas reserves underneath the coral and Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei are also making nationalist noises over ownership of the remote rocks. But Washington is wary of sticking its oar in too deeply into the choppy South China Sea waters. Beijing is adamant it is in the clear and has been deploying navy boats to ward off errant fishermen. Manila is seeking support for those very sea-goers, who believe they are trawling their own, Philippine waters. The Spratly Islands are in a triangle of proximity to the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei but are much nearer to Filipino land than anybody else. Despite this China bellows its claims and is far more than the regional power. It is a global player and the US is being very cautious with what help is openly offers to Manila.

The Philippines and China seem still to be at a stage where a resolution to the dispute could be reached peacefully but relations are deteriorating. Last week there were reports of another kidnapping by suspected Islamist extremists in the south of the Philippines. This time the abductors, who the military believe to have links to al-Qaeda, grabbed two Chinese iron ore traders. There was little reported evidence to suggest that the kidnappings had anything to do at all with the maritime disputes taking place far away in the seas to the west but it was another hurdle for Beijing and Manila to navigate.

There are half a dozen sovereign states battling for control of Scarborough Shoal and the Spratlys and Beijing is angling for bilateral meetings to debate the issues. The smaller countries on the shores of the South China Sea much prefer multilateral discussions. One player that is only dipping its feet in the water at the moment is the US, carefully offering low-level support and calling for urgent talks to avoid escalating the tension. But while the type of summits are sorted out, the contested fishing, naval patrolling and flag-waving will continue through the multiple claims to the multiple cayes, shoals, reefs and rocks in the region.

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Indian summer of uncertainty

How will India make use of its month in the presidency of the UN Security Council?

India has a lot of domestic and regional defence and security issues on its plate at the moment. Bearing in mind the added responsibility of chairing the UN Security Council, Delhi has a lot to shoulder. Looking at the international situation first there is one major issue: what to do with Syria. Since the Arab League gave its first official condemnation of the ongoing repression across Syria, the Gulf Nations have been queuing up to denounce the regime and their ambassadors have been jumping on aeroplanes home.

However, India’s caution on the issue has stood out. The excitable Europeans have been at the forefront of the clamour for a condemnatory resolution, with their grouping led by the UK, France and Italy (and also this time Germany, notably ambivalent about the NATO mission in Libya). Then there are Russia and China, two heavyweight permanent members flapping their vetoes in the air as a warning. India has so far aligned itself with the Russians and Chinese, who also count current non-permanent Council member South Africa, (part of the emboldening BRICS global power bloc), amongst their ranks. The Council has so far failed to agree on a resolution and only issued a weak statement. With Arab countries of regional importance both to Syria and to India starting to turn away from Damascus, India should have something a little bit more negative to say about the terrible repression in Syria.

On the home front, a relationship that unnerves Delhi is the Sino-Pakistani one. However, it has soured somewhat with Beijing’s published fears that Muslim Uighurs from Xinjiang province have been popping over the border to Pakistan to terrorist training camps. India, the host country of the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government, is eyeing China with suspicion. Indo-Pakistani relations recently came under the spotlight after many attributed responsibility for the Mumbai bombings in July to a Pakistani group. However, Islamabad strongly condemned the attacks and many instead looked to India’s homegrown Mujahideen as the possible bombers.

A new ‘Great Game’ seems to be building slowly in India, Pakistan and China. All three have nuclear weapons and very strong armed forces. India has two eyes but must not train them in the same direction. Syria is clearly important but Delhi must deliver calm diplomacy and strong leadership in the sub-continent as well. It has the chance to be a mediator in Indo-Chinese disputes at home and international disputes via the Security Council and must use these opportunities calmly and wisely.

Time to retake the Latin exam

The British government shows some determination to address its lack of commitment to Latin America

They say Latin is a dead language. Sometimes it seems that many in different British governments have believed Latin America is dead too. The visit of the British Minister for Latin America to Bolivia from 26-27 July went almost unnoticed in the UK press. The BBC had one online page of coverage of the trip; a YouTube video Jeremy Browne, the Liberal Democrat MP with responsibility for Latin America, put online had only been viewed 42 times by the time this blog was published.

In November, the Foreign Secretary made this speech about the relationship between the UK and Latin America. He was right that Britons have played a role in forging Brazilian and Uruguayan independence and being the first European nation to recognise Mexico. Welshmen took football to Argentina. Cornishmen helped develop the Mexican silver mines.

But it seems that there has been an invisible colonial barrier barring the UK from closer relations with the region; a whispered admission that this was Spain and Portugal’s domain. Africa and the sub-continent have received far greater attention from the UK, mainly owing to the colonial links. Millions across India, Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa speak English. Charities and aid workers regularly channel their efforts (rightfully) on the many social, political and medical needs of these nations but Latin America also needs support. And the UK can help the region in a different way.

It need not abandon Uganda or Bangladesh but the old colonial frontiers that stood are long gone. New-age imperialism is booming. China has already muscled in on the old UK ground: Beijing is a massive investor in many African countries now, often exchanging construction workers and architects for coal. India is turning into a global power capable of looking after itself. South Africa has now joined Brazil, Russia, India and China in their strong, emerging-powers BRICS bloc.

Latin America is full of successful, healthy and democratic countries. Mexico, Argentina and Brazil are in the G20. The region does not need stabilising support but it would welcome closer trade and investment links. As Mr Hague noted in his speech “We export over three times more to Ireland than we do to the whole of Latin America”. That needs addressing fast. China is becoming the dominant power in Africa. As Brazil outgrows Latin America and sets its sights on global ambitions, the UK would do worse then re-focusing a little of its ring-fenced international development budget and a lot of its trade desires on Latin America.

A fortress made of BRICS

The BRICS countries are building a formidable global power base but there are still cracks in the foundations

With the addition of South Africa to the group late last year, the emerging markets bloc has expanded its reach and capability considerably. It now has fingers in pies cooking in all corners of the globe and each member-state has a rough home ‘region’ where it is the dominate force. Brazil has majority sway over Latin American affairs, China rules the construction industry in Africa and Russia has diplomatic and industrial control throughout the former Soviet Union nations. But the way they influence and react with each other – let alone other countries – is both a cause for celebration and concern.

China is the most successful of the BRICS. It competes with Brazil in Latin America and rivals South Africa throughout Africa, be it through construction contracts in Angola or oil agreements in Sudan. Its conveyor lines drive European businesses back home and its markets are being opened up to foreign firms. It is powerful militarily, diplomatically and economically. China also is skilled at both comforting and irritating rival BRICS. It is happy to let South Africa be a diplomatic voice for Africa while it maintains its industrial strength there. But it has annoyed India by cosying up to Pakistan recently with economic agreements and plans for motorways and railways between the two countries. The transport links would pass through a part of Kashmir that India sees as its own and that Islamabad ceded to Beijing in 1963.

The other powers have also tried to carve out distinct paths across the globe. Brazil is promoting itself as a leader of a new international diplomacy by flexing its negotiation muscles and by engaging with Iran and the Middle East. Russia is still sending rockets to the International Space Station and is arguably the closest of the BRICS to Europe. India is starting to move its weight in South East Asia and has belatedly broken free from its comfortable domestic engine room to engage with African nations and make its nuclear-backed voice heard. South Africa is aiming to make the continent it foots its own, at first through diplomacy (President Jacob Zuma recently met Colonel Gaddafi for talks), and later by possibly challenging China industrially.

There are many sticking points. China and India have a disputed border and Beijing is cross that Delhi lets the Dalai Lama use India as his base-in-exile. Diplomatically, Brazil and South Africa are making an impact on the world stage, while quietly letting China continue to invest in their ‘home’ regions. But while China powers on, Russia is stalling and South Africa relatively inexperienced as the baby of the club.

It is up to Brazil and India to move the BRICS on from a second-class talking-shop to the most important international alliance. An Argentine writing his doctorate on Argentina and Brazil’s economies recently told me that “Brazil is big, very big – too big in fact” and the same could be said for India. They are outgrowing their respective Latin American and sub-continental origins and it is time that they give China a rest from pace-setting. They are certainly all building themselves up quickly and strongly and the West ignores them at its peril.

Is the Nobel Peace Prize becoming a dangerously political award?

The BBC has reported that China is unhappy at the prospect of the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to the imprisoned activist, Liu Xiaobo. Mr Liu has called on China to account for its actions and has been a fierce human rights activist and is now in jail, serving a sentence for ‘incitement to subvert the state’. So will the plan by the Norwegian Nobel Committee (NNC) to award Mr Liu the Peace Prize upset China? Does this mean that the Nobel Peace Prize is becoming increasingly political?

In December 2009, US President Barack Obama became the 117th recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. Global reaction to the announcement was mainly negative, arguing that as Mr Obama had not even been in power for a year and had only been nominated a fortnight after moving into the Oval Office, there were insufficient reasons to honour him. Mr Obama was widely criticised for accepting the award. At the time it seemed as though his political background influenced the decision and that Scandinavia had taken a dislike to George W. Bush’s foreign policy and assertive conservatism. In short, Obama’s election had signalled a change at the top of the US government, and this change was welcomed in Scandinavia. The NNC seemed to base its decision on Obama’s policies and plans for the future. Immense pressure has been placed on the president to live up to his billing as a laureate and demonstrate his worthiness of the award. So far his progress has been uneven. He missed his own deadline on closing Guantanamo Bay prison but succeeded in ending combat operations in Iraq. He convened Mahmoud Abbas and Binyamin Netanyahu but no deal was reached on the Israel/Palestine Peace Process.

Now the Norwegians are making noises regarding honouring the human rights efforts of Liu Xiaobo. China is unhappy. Beijing jailed Mr Liu for subversion a few weeks after Obama picked up the prize and the US and the EU have both condemned the judgment. Both have called on China to relax its militant approach to political dissidents. So what does this news mean for the Committee itself? It certainly came under criticism for last year’s choice, so it would like to steer clear of an overtly-political ceremony this year. Awarding Liu the prize would do the opposite and result in diplomatic disagreement and argument between China and the West. There is no doubt that Liu is a brave and committed supporter of human rights but the Committee is treading on unsteady ground in the run-up to the announcement of the recipient on 8 October. Its decisions carry huge significance and it must think carefully. If the NNC goes with Liu, China will accuse it of pandering to the liberal democratic policies of Europe and North America whilst Beijing critics will champion Liu as a defender of the sanctity of human rights and highlight China’s repressive regime. If the prize goes elsewhere, China will surely claim a moral victory for political persuasion; the West will complain and be left bewildered by the unforeseen choice of a committee that it sees as a vehicle for its international political ambitions.

There are other ways in which politics is linked to the award. In 1976 Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams received the prize for the work in establishing the Community of Peace People to try to work towards a peaceful resolution of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Earlier this year Corrigan joined the flotilla which tried to breach the Israeli aid blockade and reach Gaza and which ended in a violent confrontation between activists and Israeli commandoes. She has become a staunch critic of the Israeli political position and spoken up for the Palestinians.

Of course the NNC could not foresee the way in which Corrigan’s activism would manifest itself 34 year after giving her the award but her actions do show that the Peace Prize has become inextricably linked with politics. For better or for worse, its nominations reflect the political attitude of Scandinavia. Such is the prestige and gravity of the award, the honouring of the laureates can represent a stumbling block on the diplomatic tables of the world powers. The global reaction to the decision next week will be intriguing.