News in brief N°5

A summary of select international news: A close look at the international political competition in and over Afghanistan, the West is transforming and the new US import tariffs, Saudi Arabia in world politics, China partially restructures its political constitution.

There’s some significant political and strategic activity afoot in Afghanistan. That country’s president Ashraf Ghani has offered a peace deal and ceasefire to the Taliban (27 February 2018). The central government and the Taliban have been fighting a long war against each other, with US-led NATO countries backing the central government after they deposed the Taliban from power and then set the groundwork for a new state structure. The Taliban operates out of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s northwest. The Taliban is composed of multiple parties, two of which hold more power than the others and they’re sometimes at odds with each other: internal conflict includes shootouts. Pakistan has influence with some of these factions and it’s said to have a special relationship with one major party in particular: the Haqqani network. This organisation is currently listed as a terrorist group by the US but was covertly funded under US president Reagan in the fight against the Soviet Union’s presence and war in Afghanistan (1979 – 1989).

President Ghani has made a seven point peace proposal addressed to the Taliban. He demands the maintenance of the existing state constitution (the Taliban have normally demanded a new one be written), and a break with foreign “terrorist networks” whether state or non-state (i.e. al-Qaeda). The peace proposal offers that weapons are downed in exchange for a political framework such as fresh elections that include newly admitted Taliban politicians, the release of prisoners who are Taliban members, the balanced development of all regions (this signifies that the Taliban’s ethno-linguistic southern heartland must share power with other regions), promises that the Taliban will be given full rights of citizenship, that foreign funding and diplomatic missions remain (presumably such as from NATO countries, Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran) and that the results of any political solution be reviewed and evaluated after a period of time.

Prior to this proposal, the Taliban made their own appeal for a political solution, writing an open letter entitled, “peaceful resolution to the Afghan issue,” to the US leadership. On 5 March, the US chimed in via a principal assistant secretary of state in their state department (foreign affairs office). A briefing was given by Alice Wells, backing Ghani’s proposal. The statement included Pakistan as an important actor in the deal. On the same day, Pakistan’s foreign secretary made a visit to Washington. Wells recognised the influence that Pakistan holds over the Taliban and mentioned that they could encourage and pressure that organisation into a political solution. Wells saidthat there will always be members of any group that are against a given plan or decision, “[a]nd so rather than preordain who is irreconcilable, let the process determine that.” Indeed, this statement should be understood in the context of a US intent to effectively differentiate between various political currents within the Taliban and harden these divisions within the institution of a political agreement. Evidence of the disparity of opinions over a political solution as well as all sides’ desire to improve their power position before coming to a possible solution are regularly present. For example, the US recently bombed a Taliban training camp in eastern Afghanistan, despite the general offer of peace. Likewise, after heavy fighting, a Taliban faction that’s been opposed to negotiated solutions thus far offered, has also recently captured a town in the western province of Farah.

Notice that the Taliban’s offers of a political solution are generally addressed to the US and not to the Afghan central government. This is because the Taliban doesn’t recognise that government as legitimate since it was instituted during the country’s occupation by NATO powers. This is why the central government insists that the basis of any agreement should be the maintenance of the existing constitution: that would amount to a recognition of the post-invasion state structure as legitimate.

Days before the Afghan president’s call for peace, an economic and geopolitical deal that has been in the works for a very long time took a step toward possible operation. Representatives from the governments of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India met in Afghanistan in order to celebrate the launch of a project to supply natural gas from Turkmenistan via a pipeline that is supposed to run through Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. This project is called TAPI, and has been a darling of US governments and petrochemical companies for very many years. The project has had many starts and stops, and has not yet delivered concrete results. By many estimates, Turkmenistan sits atop the world’s largest reserves of natural gas. One of the issues of main concern in the successful completion of the infrastructure project has been Afghanistan’s generations-long wars, accompanied by bloody and explosive international conflict. Several factions and spokespeople from the Taliban, however, state their support for TAPI. A recent statement by a “purported” Taliban representative has the following to say on the matter:

The Islamic Emirate views this project as an important element of the country’s economic infrastructure and believes its proper implementation will benefit the Afghan people. We announce our cooperation in providing security for the project in areas under our control.

In December 2016, the Taliban made a similar claim, that it “not only backs all national projects which are in the interest of the people and result in the development and prosperity of the nation but are also committed to safeguarding them.”

The claim has been made that Afghanistan’s section of the pipeline will be completed in two years. This is not at all certain. In fact, it’s an unlikely time-line given the geopolitical complexity and stiff competition that is tied up with any such affair. The long persistent plan is laden with international tensions and ambitions. However, the efforts, deals, and political trading that is there involved has had and will have consequences one way or another. TAPI has, perhaps simplistically, been touted as an opponent to another pipeline project: the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) natural gas pipeline. This project has also been in the works for a long time and has had similar jubilees and quiet reversals. Meanwhile, an economic corridor that includes road, rail, a major shipping port, and gas pipelines is under rapid and active construction in a deal between Pakistan and China. This network, called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will stretch from Gwardar port (near to Iran) to China’s western-most province. It’s not inconceivable that this network could tap into either or both IPI or TAPI, should they ever see completion. After all, no single source of energy would be adequate for China’s or even Pakistan’s needs.

Russia, and previously the USSR were the main power brokers in Central Asia and Afghanistan. The US and NATO (via its invasion of Afghanistan), and China (via growing economic integration) have become increasingly important players in what was once Russia’s exclusive zone of influence.

The so-called Atlantic family, otherwise known as the West, is losing some of its internal cohesion. Whether this slide will deepen or is temporary has yet to be seen, and depends primarily on the ruling elites of member countries, as well as the final outcome of the struggle over the make-up of future leadership and decision-making structures of the group following the decline of US power and control over the collective. Tensions between them, the scramble for power, as well as the ineffectiveness and incoherence of US policy leadership is currently most evident in its row over trade barriers imposed by the US: 25% tariffs on imported steel and 10% on aluminium. Canada and Mexico are thus far exempt, but some European countries could see a significant economic hit, namely Germany. See more details on this topic via the Maleki Dispatch article: US president Trump’s proposed trade barriers and the long decline of the US economy.

This comes at a time when the US sway over Europe and the European Union is both eroding and under challenge from within Europe itself. German and French political elites, the latter as a less potent power, are angling for increasing European independence from US influence, in a move to oblige the continent to accept their joint leadership. Such a scheme, however, risks competition between them in a time of shifting balance of forces. The issue of the US manufactured international order and the subordinated alliance system has been a matter of much consideration and concern within that country itself. As the highly influential US think tank and strategic advisory organisation, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, puts it, “Today, […] the U.S.-led alliance system stands at a crossroads.” In its list of threats is included, “resurgent geopolitical competition in Europe.”

On the topic of the shifting framework of the international balance of power, the region of West Asia, or the Middle East, plays a special role due to many factors. One of the US’ long-standing allies, the nucleus of which was a one time British protectorate and is today a country of special interest for great to middle powers, is Saudi Arabia. The Saudi king has, on 11 March 2018, endorsed the establishment of new and specialised anti-corruption departments. These departments are to sit under the purview of the monarchy’s chief prosecutor’s office. This follows November’s mass detention and arrest of dozens of Saudi princes and business leaders. Many of those arrested were current or prior state officials, people of incredible wealth, individuals with political influence, or were contenders in the monarchy’s line of succession for the title of king, the current of which is old. These individuals were accused of corruption, and were thus detained. Their release from detention was often predicated on the payment of very large fines in compensation for their alleged crimes, and were regularly accompanied by public proclamations of loyalty to the existing leadership as well as support for a newly established line of succession to the throne. Not all have yet been released. According to the Associated Press, the official tally of fines currently totals $106 billion.

The country is estimated to run a $52 billion deficit for 2018, which accounts for 7.3% of GDP. It was about $61 billion in 2017, at 8.9% of GDP, and the deficit was more significant in 2016, at 12.8% of GDP. The government had earlier set its sites on a balanced budget for 2019 but they now predict yearly deficits until 2023. Budget expenditures for 2017 had increased over the year prior, and this year’s is also predicted to increase. The government is taking loans, predicted to equal 21% of GDP in 2018, versus 17% during the previous year.

The current Saudi crown prince undertook an official state visit during the week of 4 March, to two close allies: Egypt and the United Kingdom. Egypt has receivedsubstantial funds from Saudi Arabia following the 2013 coup that ousted then president Mohammed Morsi. Egypt’s government budget has been in terrible shape for many years, since before the time of the so-called Arab Spring revolutions. Therefore, any and all external aid is a great relief. Two days before the crown prince’s visit, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court upheld Cairo’s decision to give two strategically significant Red Sea islands to the Saudis. The state visit was used to announce the pooling of resources between the two country’s in order to construct a new city that straddles their borders. The joint fund is officially calculated at $10 billion, and Egypt’s share is comprised of the “long term” leasing out of land in the Sinai. The visit to the UK was concluded by the signing of a series of trade deals for which little to no detailed information was given. Two unfinished deals are known about, however:

  1. Ongoing discussions between the two countries for the sale of 48 BAE Systems war planes to Saudi Arabia; and
  2. Negotiations over the potential and planned first-time sales of stock shares in Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, Saudi Aramco.

There is competition between the stock exchanges of London, New York, and Hong Kong over the possible foreign listing of that company’s shares. According to OPEC, Saudi Arabia holds 22% of the world’s proven crude oil reserves (2016). The international trade in oil, including that of Saudi Arabia, is primarily transacted in US dollars. This helps to maintain the dollar as the world’s singularly important currency, necessary for all manner of international transactions and trade, thus the reason that countries the world over keep reserves of dollars in stock. This gives the US a unique advantage over all other countries that are forced to buy dollars and US bonds. A notable historic trade deal between the UK and Saudi Arabia took place in 1985. The UK provided weapons such as aircraft, ships, and shells in exchange for 600,000 barrels of oil per day, according to author Andrew Feinstein. This process is supposed to be ongoing. The US and France are next on the list of state visits by the crown prince.

Another country whose political line of succession is undergoing significant change is China. The term limits on the offices of president and vice president have now been removed. Previously, tenure was limited to two terms. On 11 March 2018, the country’s 3,000 member legislative body, the National People’s Congress, voted in favour of the constitutional change. Two people voted against it while three others abstained. This amendment has been preceded by many months of rumours on the subject: foreshadowing, testing out the possibility of, and normalising the enactment of this political transformation. Formal proposal for the change was announced only this past February.

The order in which ballots were cast is interesting. First went the general secretary of the Communist Party of China, chairman of the Central Military Commission, and incumbent president: Xi Jinping. Next came the remaining six members of the Communist Party’s Standing Committee of the Central Political Bureau (Politbureau). They were followed by Wang Qishan, who is a favourite in the upcoming vote for the office of vice president. Wang led the party’s anti-corruption organisation from 2012 to 2017, an office that oversaw some dramatic transformations in the composition of the country’s political leadership after many were found guilty of corruption. It should be noted that power is not concentrated in the office of the president. The general secretary of the Communist Party of China and the chairman of the Central Military Commission hold greater sway over political and military matters.

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