Mexican stand-off

 

Donald Trump and Enrique Pena Nieto arrive for a press conference in Mexico City (31 August 2016) REUTERS/Henry Romero

Donald Trump and Enrique Pena Nieto arrive for a press conference in Mexico City (31 August 2016) REUTERS/Henry Romero

Donald Trump and Enrique Peña Nieto were civil to begin with but their relationship has been breaking down slowly but surely over the possible border wall

Mexico has been unsure how to deal with both the wall and its proponent as Donald Trump has progressed from Republican Party primary candidate to president of the nation.

When Mr Trump first floated the idea of making Mexico pay for the construction of the wall, the former president, Vicente Fox, reacted furiously. After that, the current Mexican leader, Enrique Peña Nieto, thought that he might be able to apply some pressure to Mr Trump and the brash billionaire was invited down to Mexico City.

At first look, this seemed to be a smart move: to have Trump over for lunch to try to mollify his bombastic plans and force him to change them while he was in Mexico.

It could have been a major victory but the Mexican president was up against it from the start when it came to dealing with the swaggering reality TV star and all the meeting did was embarrass Peña Nieto.

Street protests erupted. The president’s approval ratings dropped still further. And Luis Videgaray, the then-finance secretary and close friend of Peña Nieto who suggested the meeting, was dismissed.

After his inauguration, Donald Trump reaffirmed his stance on the issue of the wall and his plan to claim back the cost for building it from Mexico, possibly through stopping the flow of remittances from Mexicans working in the United States.

Realising that his attempted soothing and smoothing of the relationship did not work, Peña Nieto tried to come out fighting with a firm statement that Mexico would not be paying for any such wall. The sentiment suggested that this was all incredible policy: why should Mexico pay for something that it neither wanted nor needed.

The Mexican leader had chosen confrontation and backed up his words by cancelling a meeting that was scheduled for today in Washington where he was due to meet President Trump on American soil for the first time.

These manoeuvres have given Peña Nieto’s terrible approval ratings some relief.

His figures had been forced down initially by an inability to deal with gang violence and a rise in consumer prices, especially an increase in petrol costs. His deference and ineffectiveness at the Mexico City meeting pushed the ratings even lower.

But a survey conducted by the polling firm BGC and the newspaper Excelsior showed a five per cent bump to 16 per cent as of yesterday, put down to the new direction of travel as regards the wall.

One curveball to this curious argument is – whisper it quietly – the thought that the wall could actually be good for Mexico. Mexican firms stand to benefit from possible construction deals and workers in the region might well be eyeing possible employment opportunities.
Will this division force Mexico into a pivot away from DC? Would that even be possible bearing in mind the (now-threatened) NAFTA links, the deep economic ties and the cultural and social bonds?
One thing is for sure: we cannot predict the next direction that the Peña Nieto-Trump relationship will take.
For now, Mexico City has chosen the path of defiance. And that decision is being matched north of the border.

 

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Cartel Land – a review

 

Silhouette of man with rifle

Still from the film

Opening in a menacing jungle darkness, hissing acid and eyes among the trees, hooded men cook methamphetamine.

The scrubland chemicals fizz as they chew over their occupation: “we know what we do causes harm in the United States”. A thousand miles to the north, peering through night-vision goggles, a weather-bitten man mutters about the influence of the Mexican drug gangs spilling over the border “this is no longer the USA… we are David and they are Goliath”.

These are the opening scenes of Cartel Land, the latest film from American producer and director Matthew Heineman. At its shivering, gristly core, this is a film that tries to put its finger on the pulse of two groups of vigilantes (one in south-west Mexico, one in southern Arizona) who are challenging the bloody philosophy of the gangs.

Both start-up defence movements are led by tall, striking men, who see themselves as proactive spearheads filling a vacuum created by inefficient law enforcement and a terrifying cartel-created chaos. The Knights Templars are the first villains we come across in the lawless Mexican state of Michoacán. There we are among wailing mourners shuffling on grey dirt grave mounds, burying their relatives. A farmer has not coughed up his extortion fee demanded by the Templars. They have punished him by slaughtering all his farm workers and their children, smashing infants on rocks and throwing their bodies in a well.

This sets the stage for the Autodefensas, the Mexican group with whom Heineman embeds himself and his tiny team. He develops a rapport with the vigilantes as they build support, community by community. The men are guided spiritually and physically by a local doctor, José Manuel Mireles. He speaks in town squares as his team fend off the gangsters and replace the army in the forgotten villages of Michoacán.

In Arizona, we meet Tim ‘Nailer’ Foley and his small band of men. Sharp in camouflage, working his weapons, he stares out across the Altar Valley. We come back to the American self-defence team throughout, but Heineman spends more time developing and laying out the Mexican story. That despite the fact that he only originally planned to tell the account of the so-called ‘Arizona Border Recon’ of ‘Nailer’ and his lieutenants. It was when the director came across news of Dr Mireles in Michoacán that he chose to balance the documentary with both sides of the border story.

There is no narrator and we are guided through the parallel narrative by events, be that the moralising of the vigilantes or the crackle-moans of men being electrocuted. There are chilling scenes with the Autodefensas, and the director bounces in and out of cars, capturing the vigilantes’ shoot-outs with cartel members. In one scene, as the men close in on two leading gangsters, Heineman is understandably running around corners and in the film he has left in shots where he loses focus on his camera, the lens jolting and whitening in the sun. This means the action is not sanitised; we undergo the visceral shock of being in a gun-fight. The two gangsters are captured, reported to have tortured and dismembered relatives of the vigilantes. Cartel Land is raw, it is unfettered, the viewer is wincingly enmeshed in the violence, as one man punches the gangster known as ‘El Cheneque’, hollering and demanding to know where his uncles’ bodies are buried.

The director himself admits he is not a traditional war reporter; his embedding is of a different sort, with groups operating in a blurry, semi-legal world. They assure the locals that they are the good guys, but where vigilantes build up a following they can take on a cult hero presence and with growing sway they risk challenge and downfall. As the narrative develops, we spend more time south of the border and Dr Mireles begins to lose control. His mutinous understudies join a government-sponsored ‘Rural Defence Force’, he is frozen out and forced to flee, his civic leader status is undercut by an unnerving audio recording of a sexual encounter with a mistress. His life is collapsing and he ends the film behind bars, suspiciously incarcerated amid claims of official silencing.

The Mexican heart of darkness has been documented before. In Cartel Land the audience gets a fresh view of the horribly regular themes of torture and extortion through the two counterpoints to a transnational problem. The drugs and guns come and go on both sides of the border and the director shows the community resistance building in the grassroots in both countries.

This is most stunningly illustrated in the cinematography in the two main theatres of action: the Arizonans patrolling the wild wastes of the Sonoran Desert; or the blood-red sunset scenery over Mexican towns, with the hunched shoulders of some young rifleman silhouetted against a empty dusk. It is at turns a darkly comic and distressingly graphic film, and deservedly took home two awards at the Sundance festival earlier this year.

Heineman was at the same sold-out screening of the film, at the Frontline Club in London, as I was, taking questions afterwards. I asked him about the cyclical role the meth lab scenes play, used at the beginning and the end. He explained the tense relationship-building that went into working with the cooks and debunks the Breaking Bad-style glorification. Heineman said he wanted to present the drug manufacturing process as it was, in the half-light, lost in the backwoods.

The deceitful tendrils of policemen, politicians, gangsters and vigilantes are exposed then by one of the cooks, who we see at the end sporting a ‘Rural Defence Force’ polo shirt. The incorruptibility of the Autodefensas is never certain and the group’s strategies and members change as the movement grows. The corrupt but, ultimately, unsurprising cycle is complete in this final scene, the drug-running phoenix rising from the tarnished flames of a movement that is turning into the very danger it was formed to confront.

Cartel Land is showing at cinemas across the UK. See cartellandmovie.co.uk for more details.

This review first appeared in Sounds and Colours on 7 September

Arab autumn woes

As the global wrangling over Syria continues, militant attacks go on in ‘post-Arab Spring’ nations

Two-and-a-half years on from the explosive revolutions that toppled dictators and forced deep re-organisations of countries’ politics from Morocco to Yemen, there seems to be no let up in the deadly instability that has rocked many of the nations that underwent upheavals.

Yesterday, the Egyptian air forces carries out raids on Islamist militant positions in the restive Sinai area – a double strike as part of an ongoing battle with insurgents in the region more generally and also in probable retaliation for two suicide car bombings on Wednesday 11. Six soldiers lost their lives and many more people were wounded in the twin assault: one targeted the intelligence building in the town of Rafah and the other hit an armoured personnel carrier. A little-known jihadist group called Jund al-Islam claimed responsibility.

There was another car bombing on Wednesday, to the east over the border in Libya. This time the device went off near the country’s Foreign Ministry in the city of Benghazi. There were no serious casualties but the explosion came on both the anniversary of the 9/11 attack in the US in 2001 and the attack on the American Consulate in the Libyan city. The U.S. ambassador and three others died as al-Qaeda-linked militants broke into the diplomatic mission last year.

At the start of the week, on Monday, the Tunisian security forces killed two Islamist fighters belonging to the Ansar al-Sharia extremist group. And just today there was another bombing of Yemen’s main oil pipeline in the central Maarib province. It is the fourth attack on the pipeline in a month.

Algeria has also been in the news over the last few days after the release of a report into a deadly siege attack in January on a gas plant in the country’s desert borderlands with Libya. 40 people were killed when Islamist extremists overran the In Amenas facility, which was home to many Western workers as well as Algerians. Statoil, the Norwegian company, published on Thursday the conclusions of an internal investigation into the militant assault.

But despite all this unrest across the region, the past seven days have been another week where the focus of the world’s media has been on Syria. There has now been an agreement between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov over how to address the 21 August use of chemical weapons, but there remains a nervousness, with the use of force by the US not totally ruled out for all contexts. The world powers may be trying to deal with the Syrian crisis, but they are only looking into the chemical weapons side of that conflict, not the deteriorating state of the nation itself, wrecked by a war that shows no signs of stopping, and is becoming ever more complex regarding the ethnic and religious alliances and hostilities at play.

What this past week encapsulates is the overarching worry of the examples now being played out by the countries ahead of Syria in the ‘Arab Spring’ transition ladder. The war in Syria seems a long way from ending (if it ever technically does, that is), but even if it were concluding, the extremist elements on both sides of the conflict point to an ominous future for the country. If terrorist bombings can continue in countries that are perceived to have already gone through the ‘Arab Spring’, then the outlook for Syria, (which has had the longest war of all those countries, and thus more time for militants to weave their extremist aims into the region), is bleak – despite the Russia-US negotiations appearing to start to bear fruit.

Snowed under

Several countries with competing ambitions are involved in the CIA whistleblower’s escapade

Since arriving in Moscow yesterday, Edward Snowden has set yet another diplomatic ball rolling. The cobweb of international espionage winks and nudges seems to be growing daily. The US would like to see Mr Snowden back on home turf as soon as possible to answer charges of spying and communicating classified information, but he has, so far, managed to stay one step ahead of Washington.

He first fled to Hong Kong after leaking details of the questionable intelligence-gathering methods employed by the US secret services, for whom he used to work as an IT engineer. That brought China into the mix, and although Hong Kong has a separate legal set-up to the rest of the country, it did give Beijing the indirect chance to rub the US up the wrong way.

Mr Snowden has flown from China to Russia and he has submitted an asylum request to Ecuador. He was rumoured to have been leaving Moscow today on a flight to Cuba; a journey that was possibly only going via Havana on route to its final destination in Venezuela. Lots of countries are involved and all of them are defending Mr Snowden’s right to speak out. But why? It does appear that one of the major reasons for these nations defending the name of Edward Snowden is to employ this ruse a means to irritate the US. Certainly, the Latin American states involved are all members of the late Hugo Chavez’s leftist ALBA bloc, and love nothing more than having a go at what they see as an overbearing, bullying neighbour to the north.

There has been a lot of talk on this issue so far regarding human rights, freedom of expression and the right (or lack thereof) of governments to snoop on citizens. But it is interesting to look at the list in the paragraph above of the countries now involved in this escapade. Mr Snowden claims to be fighting for freedom of expression but China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador have not been shy to suppress parts of the media that report on issues that they see as a bit too close to the ruling inner circles. The US may be wrong to think that all countries should deign to whatever arrest warrant it has issued for the latest Wikileaks-related secret data releaser. But, on the other hand, Mr Snowden may be wrong to think that a fair trial is a matter of regular, democratic order in places where restrictions on expression – the very issue at the heart of this case – have been all too common in recent years.

Long-grass policy?

Cannabis policy moves in the US and Uruguay re-ignite calls for drugs strategies to be reviewed

Earlier this week the Mexican president Felipe Calderón joined several regional counterparts for talks. One of the topics up for discussion was the possible social implications of legalising the sale and possession of cannabis. The Mexican leader, who has two weeks left in Los Pinos before the handover of power to Enrique Peña Nieto, has spent most of his six-year term waging a brutal and costly war against drugs gangsters in his country. On Monday he spoke of another tactic: legalisation. This is a popular idea in Latin America and former Mexican presidents Vicente Fox and Ernesto Zedillo, along with ex-Brazilian leader Fernando Henrique Cardoso, have all said legalisation has to be considered.

Another country in the Americas that has thought about scrapping national penalties on the sale and possession of pot is the US – albeit at the moment on a state rather than federal level. On 6 November the vast majority of the United States was focused on a very different set of policy arguments: the tax plans; jobs measures; foreign ideas; and grand-standing of the candidates in its presidential election. But in three (safe Democrat) western states, voters were also going to the polls over the issue of legalising the sale and possession of marijuana for recreational use. Colorado and Washington passed the vote whilst Oregon rejected a move to get rid of criminal penalties for possession and cultivation of cannabis recreationally. At a federal level, the United States does not currently favour the national legalisation of pot-smoking but that position is changing in the presidential offices of some of its regional neighbours.

In Uruguay, the government has faced up to the issue of weed consumption rather than trying to deny it or only discuss further penalising it. Montevideo is set to establish a ‘National Cannabis Institute’ through which the state will regulate the production, sale and consumption of marijuana. The government has said it is determined to offer what it describes as ‘better quality’ pot than that which is currently bought and sold on the Uruguayan black market. It is a novel way to confront the issue.

Socially, the Americas seem to be driving the global discussion on drugs regulation. But there are still differences from country to country. Unlike Mexico, Uruguay is not fighting a bloody civil war, wrought with the images of decapitated men and women set against a backdrop of hillsides flaming as fields of confiscated cannabis are set alight. To say ordinary Mexicans are tired of the destruction would be an understatement. They long for a way out of the violent mess. Is that exit labelled ‘legalisation’?

Consumption within Mexico is not the issue at hand – but would more wide-ranging reform of the system in the US, particularly on a federal level (or with the compliance of federal authorities to laws passed in individual states) calm the warfare to the south? Gangs would have less reason to smuggle weed into a country where it could be grown and sold legally. Mexican politicians have tried forging secret pacts with the gangs; they have tried to crush them with the civil deployment of the armed forces. They need a new way.

The policy moves at either end of the Americas underline the international dimension to the drugs debate. Could the gangs be defeated through cross-border measures and agreements? Mexico has lost a lot of energy in the war on drugs. Surely the talks hosted by Felipe Calderón this week with the leaders of Belize, Honduras and Costa Rica demonstrate that there is everything to gain by closer neighbourly chats: talks over how to deliver a social policy blow to the gangs rather than using bribes or bombs?

Adiós Comandante?

At the weekend Venezuelans go to the polls in a presidential election. Incumbent Hugo Chávez is under pressure

7-O is coming in Venezuela. On Sunday 7 October the South American country will elect a leader who will take it through to pretty much the end of the decade. The favourite to secure the victory in the race is well-known. He is loved and loathed across the world. He is the man who has campaigned on a self-created ideological mix of socialism, nationalism and personality since he was first voted into the Miraflores Palace in 1998. He is, of course, Presidente Hugo Chávez Frías. There is almost no need to say his name, such is his celebrity (or notoriety), and indeed that is one of the electioneering tactics being used by the main opposition candidate.

Henrique Capriles Radonski represents the opposition’s best chance to oust Chávez since the buccaneering leader came to power. Capriles has united dozens of anti-government groupings and parties under his ‘Primero Justicia’ (First Justice) banner. He is also refusing to recognise his powerful opponent by name, preferring to label Chávez as “the candidate of the PSUV” [the ruling government party – the United Socialist Party of Venezuela]. Capriles knows the president has constructed a personality cult in the country, be it through his TV programme Alo Presidente or through his high-falutin international speeches attacking one Western country or another; the opposition’s man recognises he has to chip away at Chávez’ charismatic charm in every way he can.

Capriles has been whizzing around the country on his so-called ‘Pueblo por pueblo’ (Town by town) tour, trying to employ the energy that was once synonymous with the president, but who now cannot run around as he once did. Chávez has been suffering from an unconfirmed type of cancer and his team have been unable to silence the whisperers that doubt whether he will be fit enough to serve his country for another six-year term and that ponder the power vacuums that would arise should he be forced to give up power suddenly. The president has been popping back and forth to Cuba as he was treated for the disease and has declared himself cured.

Hugo Chávez is 57 whereas Henrique Capriles is 40 and the younger man has been squeezing every ounce out of his advantage of being 17 years younger than the leader. On Sunday, with a week to go until the vote, he mobilised hundreds of thousands of supporters in the capital, Caracas, whipping up the cheering crowds into a frenzy, shouting “you are the future, you must choose who is in the process of change and who is sick of power”. Chávez was once the forty-something upstart revolting against an entrenched order and the battle he faces on Sunday from Capriles resembles very closely the political fights that he used to pick and win.

Mud-slinging has been as evident in this campaign as in any other. Henrique Capriles has railed against perceived corruption amongst the ruling echelons of the country and lamented the attention that the government gives to foreign matters, saying the focus should be on a more domestic outlook. Hugo Chávez has said his rival will never win the election because he is a “pig”. But there has been a darker side to the election trail, with two members of opposition parties that are backing Mr Capriles’ campaign shot dead on Saturday 29 September by unidentified gunmen, but who were linked by witnesses to the state-owned oil company PDVSA. For its part, the government has said it will bring the killers to justice but it has opened up a bubbling public worry: that an inconclusive result could stoke civil unrest.

Big, social proyects aimed at alleviating some of the widespread civil suffering that is present further down Venezuelan society are a mainstay of the president’s policy bank and have proved very popular. Henrique Capriles has tried to assuage those who fear he will ditch all welfare support by pledging to maintain and improve the social programmes. He has said that he wants to build a ‘Venezuela for all’ but has been criticised by the government as someone who is too close to the interests of big business and religious conservatives. The president could never be accused of being in the pocket of capitalists; he has embarked upon a large-scale nationalisation package drawing many private interests back under state regulation. There is much to separate the men policy-wise, but there seems to be little to split them when it comes to the polls. Hugo is up in most but Henrique has a lead in two of the recent surveys.

The mercurial soldier who once launched a coup attempt on what he saw as the corrupt order in his beloved Venezuela is now the establishment himself. Hugo Chávez is facing an energetic challenge from a rival who has captivated large segments of Venezuelan society just like Hugo used to do. The president has to convince the citizens that, despite the popular appeal of his younger challenger and despite his own faltering health, he is still the powerhouse man to lead the oil-rich country for the next six years. Chávez has to show that he can clean up the awful rising crime and that he can safeguard the economy. In short, (and to use a word that the president himself is not averse to employing), Chávez’ unwritten slogan seems to be ‘better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t’.

Trading complaints

Argentina has been irritating a lot of countries with its global commerce policies

On Monday 3 September Argentina lodged a complaint against the US with the World Trade Organisation. This is the latest of a long line of recent grievances either filed by or against Buenos Aires. The newest protest came from the South Americans who claim that US laws are blocking the imports of lemons from the north-west of the country. Quite a few states have been weighing in at the WTO with Argentinian problems of their own for a while now. Here is a rough outline of what has been going on:

April: Argentinian government takes control of oil firm YPF from Spanish parent company Repsol

May: European Union files WTO complaint against Argentina over import licensing rules

June: Argentina pulls out of car trade pact with Mexico

August 21: US and Japan file WTO complaints against Argentina over import licensing rules

August 27: Mexico files WTO complaint against Argentina over protectionism claims

August 30: Argentina files WTO complaint over US beef and lemons

September 3: Argentina files WTO complaint against US over import of lemons

There has been a lot of activity involving the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner at the WTO headquarters in Geneva: more than 20 WTO members have objected against Argentinian trade laws which have taken a more protectionist direction in the recent months of la presidenta‘s second administration.

Regarding the latest complaint in these tit-for-tat international commercial arguments, the World Trade Organisation states on its website that:

“Argentina claims that the prohibition of imports of lemons to the US for the last 11 years, and other restrictive measures, lack scientific justification. Argentina also claims that the measures of the United States appear to cancel or impair the benefits for Argentina derived, directly or indirectly, from the relevant WTO Agreements”

As soon as a WTO complaint is lodged the two opposing sides have 60 days in which to settle the dispute through bilateral talks. If these fail or if the deadline is not met then the WTO is usually called upon to adjudicate on the argument.

It is certainly true that the Latin American nation has been increasing its trade surplus in the past few years as its export market grows, with its soybeans, beef and motor parts the most popular items on foreigners’ shopping lists. However, where the countries listed above have a problem is over trying to export goods back into Argentina.

Brussels, Mexico City, Tokyo and Washington have all got hot under the collar over the South Americans’ import licence applications which they claim are subject to lengthy and illegitimate delays. What really gets their goat is that Argentinian companies normally do not face similar bureaucracy when they are carting cereals and chemicals off to their main buyers, which include most of the regional neighbours along with their own nations. Cecilia Nahón, the Argentinian ambassador to the WTO, has defended her government’s policies, saying that Buenos Aires cannot be accused of restricting imports when the national intake of foreign goods rose by 31% last year.

Many of these ‘Somebody v Argentina’ disagreements have the look of global points-scoring about them, with one side claiming that their hand was forced by their opponent’s move. Where they are all the same is that Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s abrasively defensive style of government seems to be rubbing many nations up the wrong way. She may pass the others’ grumbling off as sour grapes or as envy at her soaring positive trade balances, but in order for her to achieve record surpluses she has to have easy import licensing rules available to her nation’s firms.

Argentina must now come clean about the accusations levelled against its own import licences for other countries’ companies and the way their exporters’ applications are handled.

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.