Research & Analysis

The World This Week: The US Naval Ships in the Malaysian Coast, Reopening of Italy, Kabul attacks’ fallouts, and the growing Australia-China tensions

The US Naval ships in the Malaysian Coast and the Chinese Aggression in the South China Sea 

What happened? 
The United States sent three naval ships to patrol near oil and gas operations off the coast of Malaysia. Over the last few weeks, the US Navy and Air Force B-1 bombers have been active in the South China Sea. Consequently, around 14 May the satellite image illustrates that China has deployed early warning aircraft and anti-submarine aircraft on the Yongshu Reef in the region.

What is the background? 
First, the US support to Malaysia. Two ships, the Independent -variant littoral combat ship USS Montgomery and the Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo ship USNS Cesar Chavez conducted “presence operations” near West Capella (under Malaysian oil and gas company). The commander of the US Pacific Fleet has reiterated that the US is committed to maintaining “a rule-based order” in the South China Sea.

Notably, it is not the first time that the US Navy has conducted Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) adjacent to the West Capella. It was a reaction to the “harassment”, the Chinese had caused to the drillship in the international waters. The PLA-N had expelled the guided-missile destroyer, USS Barry, from the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea on the pretext that the US was intruding into the Chinese waters.

Second, China’s unilateral actions during the pandemic. It set up two new administrative structure under the local government in Sansha, Hainan Province. (In 2012, Sansha was included as a prefecture-level city in the Hainan province.) On the pretext of conserving rock, from 1 May, China has prohibited fishing activities in 12th parallel including regions near the Scarborough Shoal, the Paracel Islands, and the Gulf of Tonkin.

What does it mean? 
First, China claims 80 per cent of the South China Sea and has declared it a ‘core issue’. Over the past six years, China is building artificial islands and facilities in the disputed area. This has become a source of conflict between the major claimants.  Second, the South China Sea has become a major irritant in the ongoing US-China trade dispute.

In these developments, China is using its military to send a message that it is capable of operating even at a longer distance for a longer period to challenge the other claimants and the US. On the other hand, the US is increasing its presence in the South China Sea and accusing China of taking leverage of the COVID-19 to increase its sphere of influence in the region.

The US forces have not confronted the Chinese directly in the South China Sea region. Yet, the US navy conducts FONOP frequently in the region. The transit of USS Montgomery signifies that the US is ready to deploy the two variants of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) class on a high-profile mission. Both the LCS series was suspended in 2016 due to operational difficulties. The US is in the process of helping Malaysia build its maritime domain awareness capabilities by providing 12 Scan Eagle UAS systems and converting three Royal Malaysian Air Force CN-235 transport aircraft into maritime surveillance aircraft.


After three months, Italy allows travel and settles towards a new normal 

What happened? 
On 16 May the government in Italy signed a decree that will allow travel to and from the country from 3 June. The eases in lockdown measures, reopening of economy and inter-regional travel mark a major step forward by the country that became Europe’s epicentre in the COVID-19 contagion just three months back.

What is the background?
First, the economy in shambles. Italy became the first European country to impose the strictest lockdown measures in its north-western province of Lombardy and Milan in February. Since then the country has had one of the highest death tolls in the world, with a crumbling economy, shattering tourism industry and a population at home counting coffins every day.

Second, the drop in infection rates. More than 31,600 people have died with the virus in the country, and its health infrastructure is still recuperating from the dreaded wave of infections. However, the infection rate in the country has fallen sharply in recent days. This was followed by relaxation and opening of factories and parks on 4 May. On 10 May the government approved a 55 billion Euro stimulus package planned to offset the economic impact of the pandemic on businesses and families.

What does it mean? 
The easing of lockdown and travel allowance tell the tales of resilience, healing and the sacrifices for survival. The survival has, however, come at a cost.  First, Italy faces the worst recession since the Second World War that is impacting the welfare measures, the employment and the health infrastructure in the country. Being the third-largest economy in recession in Europe, Italy’s decision to allow travel is to gradually wear off the shocks as tourism continues to increase in the summer.

Second, the tourism industry now stares at imposing a new normal with physical distancing and mandatory wearing of masks. However, the high cost will still have to be borne by the pizza restaurant chains that remains one of the core contributors to the economy of the country. Third, a society in whose centre gatherings and loud greetings are norms will now have to adjust to new ways of social bonding with physical distancing. It remains to be seen how the post-pandemic order impacts intra-community behaviours as much as inter-community discrimination, othering and racism continues.


After the attacks in Kabul, the US-Taliban deal in the doldrums

What happened?
The attack on a Kabul maternity hospital on 11 May saw the death of 24 people including new-born babies and mothers resulted in the Afghan government ordering a resumption of offensive operations against the Taliban.

The US blamed the Islamic State for the horrific attack and has reiterated its commitment to the deal with the Taliban.

What is the background?
First, the deal between the US and the Taliban. According to the agreement signed on 29 February, the US will withdraw several forces by 15 July, with all foreign forces likely to follow and leave by the end of 2021. The deal was celebrated by the Trump administration that championed it as an effort to bring home its foreign troops.

Second, the difference between the Afghan government, the US and the Taliban. The deal was between the US and the Taliban; the Afghan government has been apprehensive about the Taliban holding to the deal. The Afghan government and the Taliban have argued over prisoner release, a condition stated in the agreement which promised the release of 5,000 prisoners. The Taliban had rejected President Ashraf Ghani’s call for ceasefire citing disagreement over prisoner release and have continued to fight. Lack of progress on the terms of the peace agreement has led to immense pressure on the Afghan government which is experiencing a political crisis.

Third, the continuance of violence in Afghanistan, the slow process towards the intra-Afghan dialogue and the political crisis in Kabul. The deal has not ended violence within Afghanistan, as recent attacks since February would highlight. The intra-Afghan dialogue between the government and the Taliban is yet to start. In Kabul, President Ghani and self-appointed president Abdullah Abdullah are yet to finalize a power-sharing agreement. The absence of a unified representation of the government makes the atmosphere surrounding the negotiations even more disturbing and chaotic.

What does it mean? 
The recent attacks have raised questions on the future of the agreement whose success is heavily dependent on direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Kabul and Nangarhar attacks have further widened the gap between the signed peace agreement and subsequent intra-Afghan talks. Taliban’s continued attacks on the Afghan forces and refusal to cooperate with the Afghan government has led to chaos, allowing third parties such as ISIS to take advantage of the situation and launch attacks. Such attacks, irrespective of its origin, are misleading the peace talks.

The US government, on its part, is calling upon the Taliban and the Afghan government to resist attacks while sticking to its plan of reducing its military presence from Afghanistan. The Taliban, on the other hand, recognizes its position of strength vis-à-vis the Afghan government and would focus on increasing its territory than accept conditions that would show otherwise.

Considering the uncertainty surrounding the peace agreement, any progress on the intra-Afghan talks would be difficult to achieve in the near future.


Australia-China Tensions: Public support rise for the Australian government against Beijing

What happened?
As the trade tensions between Australia and China increase, so has the public support in Australia for their government’s stand against China. The pro-government public statements have come as they see their government standing up against an authoritarian regime that has made Australia vulnerable to its blackmail and threats. Expressing their lack of trust in China, people believe that Australia should stand independent of China.

The Prime Minister has refrained from being emotive in Australia’s response. Amid the public support, the business community and few state governments have asked the Australian government to solve the problem diplomatically and be “pragmatic” in the trade relationship.

What is the background?
First, a push for an independent inquiry on COVID-19. The escalating trade tensions follow Australia’s call for a global inquiry a month ago into the origin of the coronavirus and China’s handling of it in order to help the countries better understand the “genesis” of coronavirus. When the Foreign Affairs Minister, Marise Payne proposed the idea, Australia was alone. The proposal for the inquiry is now supported by almost all of the countries in the West. Recently, Australia has secured the support of the European Union, following the United States and the UK. This bolsters the chance of the inquiry passing the WHO’s governing forum on 18 May as China canvasses support among the developing countries.

Second, China’s economic retaliation. Following Australia’s call for the inquiry, China’s ambassador to Australia in a veiled threat stated that it would impact Australia’s bilateral relations with China. Subsequently, China’s Ministry of Commerce imposed 80 per cent import tariff on barley and suspended meat imports from four Australian abattoirs. This has had a heavy impact on the agricultural sector since China is a major trading partner, constituting one-third of Australian exports. China’s trade policy will affect barley exports worth $916 million last year, and beef exports to China, valued at $2.6 billion.

Third, growing tensions between Australia and China. Even before the COVID-19, there were tensions between the two countries. Especially within Australia, over the last few years, there was a growing sentiment against Beijing. Relationship with China has become a political issue even during the previous elections. Australia’s support for a COVID-19 inquiry has worsened a relationship that was already in deep waters.

What does it mean?
First, China is likely to strangle a chicken to scare the monkey since it comes down to whether the Australians will stand their ground or let go. If Australia steps back fearing economic repercussions, China may apply similar coercion on other countries to make them fall in terms with it. Now that Australia has support from the EU, China should tread diplomatically and with caution.

Second, China is at a disadvantage because many believe that the pandemic originated from Wuhan. It has been persistent in avoiding an inquiry into the situation. The reason behind this can be either the risk of exposing the functioning of the authoritarian government, a thriving illegal wildlife market or to avoid claims for compensation for being responsible of the pandemic.


ALSO, IN THE NEWS…

Mass testing in Wuhan fearing the second wave of COVID-19 
China has begun testing all the citizens of Wuhan for COVID-19 after a month of relaxing the lockdown in the epicentre of the epidemic. The decision came after a new cluster of cases were reported, rising the fear of a second wave of the virus. The tests would last for a period of 10 days.

India-Nepal tensions on Lipulekh: Chief of the Army Staff speculates role of a ‘third person’ 
MM Naravane said that Nepal has been protesting at the behest of a third party, over the issue of link road to Lipulekh pass. Though he did not mention a name, he hinted at China, encouraging an already agitated Nepal. The President of Nepal, however, said that serious diplomatic steps would be taken to ensure territorial sovereignty of the country. The government of Nepal is expected to release a new political map including these issues.

Japan lifts the state of emergency in 39 prefectures
Japan lifted the state of emergency in most parts of the country, owing to the flattening of the COVID-19 curve. Except for Tokyo and seven other prefectures, curbs will be eased in 39 prefectures of the country. President Abe urged the citizens to take precautions and maintain social distance, as Japan gradually reopens its economy.

Formation of government in Israel delayed 
Netanyahu and Benny Gantz delayed the formation of the Unity Government, as infighting in former’s Likud party broke out. The formation is now expected to take place on Sunday after Netanyahu is successful in quelling the infighting. A dispute over cabinet positions is said to be the main cause that has irked the Likud party members.

EU discusses sanctions on Israel over the annexation of West Bank
The European Union stated that it opposes Israel’s plan to annex parts of West Bank, and would use diplomatic means to dissuade it. The EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell said that “unilateral action should be avoided and international law should be upheld.” Though the EU is united in its opposition to Israel’s plan of action, there seems to be a divide over the nature of action-talks, sanctions or recognizing the state of Palestine.

UK-EU post-Brexit talks hit a stalemate
Post-Brexit talks between UK and EU hit a deadlock, as both parties disagreed over the terms of trade. EU expects the UK to follow their rules and regulations for a free trade agreement. However, the UK has asserted that Brexit happened because it wanted to decide the rules and regulations of trade and its economy. It seems like a no-deal Brexit may become a reality.

Saudi Arabia imposes new tax rules and austerity measures
Saudi Arabia announced a tripling of the VAT rate, as it looks to gain from taxes and cover for the losses of the crude industry. It has also eliminated the allowances for state workers, asking the citizens to adopt austerity measures. These steps are aiming at facilitating more expenditure on the support for lower rank workers and boost the COVID-hit economy. However, a surge in tax rates might invite and fuel discontent.

As Brazil’s health minister resigns, the political divide grows within the government
Nelson Teich, Brazil’s health minister, resigned after being in the post for less than a month. The resignation comes after President Bolsonaro announced his plan to ease the curbs for using HCQ, an anti-malarial drug to be cured from COVID-19. It has further raised concerns over his way of tackling the pandemic. He has prioritized the economy over health and this has led to severe disagreements within the government.

Four in Bangladesh’s Rohingya Camp test positive for COVID-19
Four Rohingyas tested positive for COVID-19 in Cox’s Bazar’s Ukhiya upazila’s camps. Cox’s Bazar Medical College stated that the infected patients are being treated in Balukhali isolation centre. COVID-19 in refugee camps and war zones is a primary concern, due to overcrowding and lack of facilities. More than one million Rohingyas are currently staying in the camps of Cox’s Bazar.

Hong Kong’s Police watchdog clears officers over the crackdown
Hong Kong’s police watchdog exonerated the officers for their actions during the pro-democracy protests in 2019. Emphasizing that the authorities acted at the behest of the law, within the guidelines, it defended the officers against the allegations of brutality. Carrie Lam welcomed the report, while the opposition called out the government for attempting to cover the human rights violations.

 

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About the author

Teshu Singh, Sourina Bej, Neha Dwivedi, Aarthi Srinivasan, Rashmi B R

Dr Teshu Singh is a Research Fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi. Neha Dwivedi is Research Analyst at IHS Janes. Sourina Bej is a Project Associate at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS). Aarthi Srinivasan is a Research Intern at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS. Rashmi BR is a PhD scholar at the NIAS.