The World this Week

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The World this Week
New PM in UK, Iran-UK Tensions in the Gulf, Muller's Testimony, Trump-Imran Meeting, New Protests in Hong Kong and Russia-China Air Exercises

  GP Team

This edition looks at the following six issues: Boris Johnson becoming the new Prime Minister of Britain; the new tensions in the Persian Gulf between UK and Iran relating to tankers;  Robert Muller's dry testimony in the US Congress; Imran Khan's first meeting with Trump; new protests and violence in Hong Kong; and finally, China-Russia military exercises in East Asia.

Harini Madhusudan, Lakshmi Menon, Aparupa Bhattacherjee, Abigail Fernandez, Sourina Bej and Seetha Lakshmi Dinesh Iyer 
International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP), NIAS

Boris Johnson is the new British PM; he might be what Brexit needs

What happened?

This week, Boris Johnson succeeded Theresa May as the new Prime Minister of Britain. He has the task to deliver ‘do or die,’ pledge for Brexit with just over three months left. The Parliament has already rejected the Brexit deal three times. A large part of Boris Johnson’s role would be to persuade the European Union to revive talks on a withdrawal deal. He has promised that he would ramp up preparations for a no-deal Brexit to try to force the EU's negotiators to make changes to the accord. 

What is the background?

A known controversial figure in the British politics and journalism, Boris Johnson’s supporters have praised him as an entertaining, humorous, and popular figure, with an appeal stretching beyond traditional Conservative voters. Conversely, he is also accused of elitism, dishonesty, laziness, and using racist and homophobic language. 

In 2016 Johnson became a prominent figure in the successful “Vote Leave” campaign for Brexit. He was subsequently appointed as the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs by Theresa May but resigned criticizing May's approach to Brexit and the Chequers Agreement. In July 2019 he was elected Conservative Leader and appointed Prime Minister.

When he showed his support for May’s deal, he said, “I genuinely think that unless this thing goes through, the House of Commons is going to steal Brexit.” His logic being, it is this Brexit or Brexit may never happen at all. Just as how bleak the difference in the referendum was, so is the divide in the opinions among the Parliamentarians on the Brexit deal. This uncertainty has led to the rise of a strong-worded leader as Boris Johnson. The Parliament would break for a summer recess and return in September.

What does it mean?

The lawmakers, the pro-EU Conservatives and the members of Parliament have rejected the deal three times. They have also vowed to do the same with Johnson if he would try to take Britain out of the EU without a deal. If nothing changes over summer break, Boris Johnson might find a parliament even more obstructive than they were with Theresa May. 

Britain seems to have failed to understand and address the fundamentals that have led to Brexit. The referendum has exacerbated, rather than resolved the fundamentals that led to Brexit. Boris Johnson might be their last bet at hoping the process ends, one way or another, an accurate representation of the mood of the people. 


In the Gulf, new tensions between Iran and the UK

What happened?
Iran’s elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps detained two oil tankers – one registered in the UK (Stena Impero) and the other in Liberia - in the Strait of Hormuz on 20 July 2019. The seizure was in response to the UK impounding an Iranian tanker. According to Tehran the ‘Stena Impero’ collided with a fishing boat while sailing towards Saudi port and then suddenly changed course breaching international maritime laws. Will Tehran and London truce or will the situation spiral out of control?

What is the background?
In a recent episode of the US-Iran standoff, Iran shot down an unmanned US “spy-drone”. Trump retaliated by launching an airstrike on Iran but cancelled at the last minute. In early July, Tehran announced its decision to breach the nuclear deal. On July 4, the United Kingdom seized the Iranian oil tanker ‘Grace 1’ just off the coast of Gibraltar, accusing the tanker of selling oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions. Tehran warned of retaliation. On July 11, Iran attempted to seize a UK tanker in vain; only to succeed a few days later. UK-Tehran relations have been strained ever since the former detained the Iranian tanker.

What does it mean?
Trump-exit from JCPOA and the re-imposition of crippling sanctions put the deal on life-support making the remaining signatories scuttle for a working relationship with Tehran. However, Iranian decision to exceed the 3.68% Uranium enrichment levels and heavy-water stockpiles – a significant breach of the nuke deal, has put the signatories in a tricky position. The UK-Iran conflict is a small piece in the broader Iran-US impasse. 

Iran has carried out the threat of retaliation rising tensions between Iran and the West another notch. The international naval coalition for protection of ships sailing in the Gulf, proposed by Britain saw strong opposition from Tehran. Although Iran’s Rouhani had hinted a possible tanker swap-deal, nothing has materialized. The tensions are only spiralling and may end in another Gulf war if not curbed.

Meanwhile, the UK now provides military escort to their ships sailing in the Gulf; the US plans to ensure “free passage” of ships in Iranian waters; Tehran claims to have arrested 17 CIA officers spying on Iran’s nuclear and military establishments; India has stated that Iran has released nine Indian crew members; and the existing signatories - France, Germany, the EU, China, Russia and the UK will meet in Vienna, on July 28, to save the deal. 


Muller Testimony does not provide much but divides the Democrats on further action

What happened?
The special counsel Robert Mueller during his hearing in front of the Congress this week has rejected the charges of exoneration on President Donald Trump. He stated that he had not exonerated Mr Trump of obstruction of justice. 

Apart from ‘what’ Mueller spoke, there was much discussion on ‘how’ he spoke. As described by several he appeared to be apprehensive, ‘dodder’ and ‘donnish’. Also, while answering the questions during the hearing, he strictly remained confined to his 448-page report. 

Trump, evidently happy with this proceeding, tweeted that it was a great day for him. 

What is the background?
In his report, Mueller has concluded that Russia had interfered in the 2016 American Presidential election in order to provide leverage to Mr Trump's campaign. Concerning this allegation against Russian interference, a total of three companies and 35 people have been charged. However, the list does not include any member of the Trump family. Among the 35 people, White House Counsel Don McGahn name is also included, against whom the Democrats have decided to move to Court in order to request enforcement of Subpoena. 

This report titled "Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election" highlighted Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election. It also investigated the role of Donald Trump in conspiracy or any coordination between him and Russia. 

A special court has been investigating since 1 May 2017, leading to the charges against the 35 people and three companies. On 22 March 2019, the Muller report was submitted to Attorney General William Barr and in April 2019 was made public by Department of Justice (DOJ). 

What does it mean?
The Mueller report highlights two polarisations. One, between the Republic and the Democrats; the latter wants to make the report as the basis for an impeachment procedure against Trump. Second is the difference between the Congress and White House. 

On 8 May, Trump retained redactions and its supporting material under his temporary "protective assertion" of executive privilege preventing the Congress to pass the material. This divided the Congress and the White House, which is rare in American political history. 

Mueller's testimony is likely to divide the Democrats and provide more confidence to Trump. For the Democrats, Mueller's testimony has been a disappointment. They were hopeful of initiating an impeachment process against Trump. The Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was a strong advocate of Trump’s impeachment, took steps back after the testimony by Mueller. Now, a section of the Democrats believes they cannot move with the impeachment any more. Disagreeing to this view, another section still wants to go ahead with the impeachment request. 

The testimony, however, is going to enhance Trump's confidence. This is going to shape American politics further. 


Imran Khan meets Trump, raising hopes of a US-Pak reset

What happened?
On 22 July 2019, Imran Khan held his first face to face meeting with US President Donald Trump in Washington DC. Lieutenant-General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan's military chief, accompanied the PM, along with ISIS chief Lieutenant-General Faiz Hameed. These meetings were a three-day state visit that comes amid strained relations between the two countries. 

The two leaders discussed several issues starting with how Pakistan would help the US to extricate troops from Afghanistan through political negotiations. Trump wants Pakistan to help initiate a peace deal with the Taliban. Further, they deliberated on economic matters. The US is one of the largest investors in Pakistan; with the grave financial situation that Pakistan is facing today, Imran Khan needs US support. Trump also offered his service to mediate in the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan. Khan and his delegation also met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, US congressional leaders, and the heads of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

What is the background?
Relations between the two countries have been strained ever since Trump assumed office in 2017. Trump administration took a hard stance and accused Pakistan of its support to militants and a few other issues that caused mistrust in the relation. 

The two heads of state over the years have exchanged opposing views via Twitter. However, efforts were taken to reset the relationship between the two countries.

What does it mean?
First, did both sides receive a positive outcome from this visit? At this stage it could be too soon to tell if it’s a positive outcome. Washington’s aim is to help use Khan’s visit as a means to get Pakistan to do even more on the Afghanistan for which they did get an adequate response. Islamabad hoped for the recognition for the assistance it has given to the US.  This was seen from the praises and kind words from many top US officials. 

Second, what will be the next steps when it comes to the Taliban? Although the two sides have decided to up the game on Taliban, Pakistan has a difficult task ahead of itself, as it may not be so easy to convince the Taliban to the demands that the US wants. However, Pakistan appears to be invested in helping reach a successful peace process in Afghanistan, mainly because of their vested interests. 

Thirdly, what significance does Pakistan's military and intelligence chiefs as part of these meetings have? The Pakistan-US relationship has an important security angle to it. Thus, having Pakistan's military and intelligence leadership shows that there was an agreement of views on commitments by Pakistan. 

Lastly, when it comes to the Kashmir offer, this is a much larger issue that a side comment such as this is not going to make much of an impact. 
In all it does seems that Khan and Trump have built a comfortable space to work in. However, this space is still not free from challenges such as Afghanistan, terrorism, India, and China will all have a significant impact on the relation.  


Hong Kong Protests: Violence in Metro Station and a new sit-in at the International Airport 

What happened? 

On 26 July the two-month-long protest in Hong Kong expanded when flight attendants and airport staff started an 11-hour protest at the Hong Kong international airport. The protest was in response to the government’s account for a violent attack on residents by suspected gang members last week. The aviation staffs were joined by demonstrators dressed in black, which is the signature colour of the Chinese territory’s protest movement. The protestor’s sat on the ground chanting “Free Hong Kong.”

What is the background? 

Hong Kong has been gripped by nearly two months of demonstrations by residents calling for democratic reforms and the withdrawal of a controversial extradition bill. However, so far the protest has been an impeccable display of peace, apology and restraint by the protesters. The protest took a violent turn on 21 July after an attack on commuters by suspected organised crime groups or as triads. This attack left 45 people hospitalised, and dozens of groups planned rallies and issued public petitions in response. In addition to this, a ruling on 19 July added to protesters grievances when Hong Kong’s appeal court overturned the conviction of two police officers previously found guilty of beating a protester in an alley during pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014. 

What does it mean? 

Over the past two months, the protests have spread from central Hong Kong to the border town of Sheung Shui and other rural parts. However, the choice of an international airport as their new centre to stage the demonstration against the government and police, is an attempt at urging international visitors to pay attention to Hong Kong. Throughout the last two months, both the means and sites of protest have remained dynamic. Thus it was not a surprise when after the triads’ attempt to disperse the moral of the protesters; it became necessary to call for international attention. 

The protest at the airport saw a group of students holding signs in English, Japanese, and Korean calling on “international friends for help standing up to the Hong Kong government”. Many held signs in red and white, designed to look like warning flags raised by police before firing on demonstrators, which said: “Tourist warning: do not trust the police or the government.”  

Secondly, it is essential to note that the protesters this time has attempted to overturn the traditional notion of ‘blockage, thus disrupting economy’ labelled by the Chinese authorities. Instead, protesters are calling on residents to come “for a walk” or to “stimulate the Yuen Long economy”. Organisers have filed an appeal to overturn the police decision to bar the march planned on 27 July. As the airport is chosen for protest, it has also called out to the mainland Chinese travellers to come to Yuen Long for “major discounts” on makeup, branded goods, and milk powder: items very popular with Chinese visiting Hong Kong. 

Lastly, why even after two months and suspension of the extradition bill the Hong Kong protest refuses to fizzle out? Perhaps, the bill is a trigger to several other issues that had remained unresolved for long, such as the housing market and Beijing’s continuous interference since 1997.  As a Chinese proverb goes, when you pull a hair, the whole body moves, the protest is Hong Kong’s way of protecting their right to governance. In the political history of Hong Kong protests are particularly crucial as a tool and an expression of their identity. For more than half a century, the people of Hong Kong have been taking to the streets to force distant authorities – first in Britain and later in Beijing – to reconsider how they govern the city. 


Russia-China Joint Air Patrol sends a strong message to the US and a challenge to the Indo-Pacific

What happened?

On 23 July 2019, Russia and China carried out their first long-range joint air patrol in the Asia Pacific region. The patrol was reportedly carried out to project deepening relations between the two and their armed forces to facilitate and perfect possible joint actions in the future. 

The exercise sparked controversy when a patrol plane violated the airspace over the disputed Dokdo islands between Japan and South Korea. As a response to this violation, the South Korean forces fired hundreds of warning shots while Japan came up with harsh protest. 

What is the background?

At America’s expense, Russia and China have come to give increasing importance to their joint military actions and exercises in the recent past. In September 2018, the duo conducted a massive military exercise which was advertised as the biggest war games for decades close to Siberia. Known as Vostok-2018, the joint operation featured 300,000 Russian troops, 1,000 aircraft, 36,000 tanks and armoured vehicles from Russia alongside 3,200 Chinese troops, 900 tanks and armoured vehicles, as well as troops from Mongolia. Vostok-2018 was intended to project to show the strength of an upcoming Russia-China rapprochement in the Asia-Pacific region. 

Although troops and naval ships from Russia and China have taken part in combined exercises before, the recent joint air patrol was the first of its kind so far. 

What does it mean?

Both Russia and China have denied protests and responses over the alleged airspace violation. However, the action could mean that the duo was deliberately trying to provoke Washington's two key allies. This could have been in order to project their dominance in the region. 

Second, the Joint patrol and the subsequent violation shows a direct challenge to the idea of an Indo-Pacific and their larger hostility to democratic institutional frameworks which are propagating the idea. 

Third, Washington has repeatedly remained hostile over the concerns expressed by China and Russia over the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems that include long-range radars on the Korean Peninsula which posed a direct threat to their security. While, the combined exercise signals that the two countries are moving towards a political convergence, the choice of conducting their air patrol close to disputed territory and the Korean peninsula at large might be read as a strong message to the US. 

Finally, the latest reports of apology from Russia to South Korea over the violation further shows that the entire incident was forged in order to send a direct strategic signal to the US and never intended to create a rift with South Korea or Japan. 

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