While the focus of US news outlets continues to be “progressive” outrage at having lost the election in November, and the insult of people saying the politically incorrect words “Merry Christmas”, there are other things going on around the world. Here is a perspective on some of what happened over the weekend. Since readers of this blog seem to be interested in these sorts of things, I distill news here for your reading edification.
THE PEOPLE’S LIBERATION ARMY’s NAVY
(That’s what the PRC calls its navy)
On 16 December, the aircraft carrier Liaoning and its escorts conducted their first live fire training. During the training, the assets fired at least ten missiles at targets.
State media reported that dozens of ships and aircraft participated and described the exercise as “massive.” It occurred in the Bohai Sea/Gulf in northeastern China. Rear Admiral Chen Yueqi described the exercise as a “milestone” for the Liaoning aircraft carrier battle group.
“It enabled us to find out how to organize a carrier battle group exercise and to test the training levels of our sailors and pilots,” the unit’s commander told state broadcaster CCTV.
Chinese media and western observers suggested the exercise was a demonstration aimed at the incoming US administration. Only the timing of the activity supports such a claim. The first exercise by the Liaoning as the core of a carrier battle took a long time to prepare. The timing might have been variable, but the real point was to test whether the Chinese ships and aircraft could operate as a battle group. It is a milestone for the Chinese navy, but achieving combat readiness as a battle group will take years. There is no substitute for practice, as the Russians have discovered with the Admiral Kuznetsov operations off Syria. The air wing lost at least three aircraft in two months from landing errors.
On 15 December, China’s defense ministry acknowledged to the state media that it installed legitimate and necessary military facilities on the seven islands/islets on which it has stationed soldiers. The only country to protest was Vietnam. China eventually will declare an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea, but apparently, it is not yet ready to do so.
The seizure of the US Navy’s drone survey vehicle in the South China Sea was an act of local hubris and is something that Beijing regretted privately. It accomplished little, publicly embarrassed China, and antagonized President Trump at a time when the Chinese want to appear “strong yet reasonable”.
Since President Trump has not yet taken office, the daily press briefing from the White House is still managed by the Obama people, filtered by the corrupt elite media. Thus President Trump feels the need to take to Twitter to express an opinion – and that he does. When he told China to “keep it” (the drone), it he expressed his feelings on the matter and they were to specifically embarrass the Chinese. The opening salvos to the Chinese regarding future negations are still being volleyed. The US Press should understand this, but they don’t seem to from their myopic reporting. They are reacting from their experiences during the eight long, miserable years of the Obama presidency and though things are changing, they are very slow to comprehend that. (see grief counseling)
US relations with Philippines worsened on 16 December after the Millennium Challenge Account, a US aid agency, announced that it had suspended a $430 million aid program pending consideration of the Duterte government’s record on rule of law and human rights violations. During the day on 17 December, President Duterte told the media in Davao City that the US should “prepare for the repeal or abrogation” of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) after the Millennium Challenge Account suspended a grant of financial assistance to the Philippines.
The VFA serves as a guide for the conduct of US soldiers while visiting the Philippines and provides rules on joint military exercises between the Philippines and the US.
“We are, we are glad that we are freed from proving anything to the United States. We do not need the money. Bye-bye America and work on the protocols that would eventually move you out from the Philippines. You know, tit for tat. If you know this, if you can do this, so do we. It ain’t a one-way traffic,” he said in a press conference after his return from an official visit to Singapore.
On the 18th, the Philippines Foreign Affairs Department walked back Duterte’s bombast, but there is a definite road map in the country that the US dealt with during the Reagan Administration.
During the term of office of the late President Corazon Aquino, the Philippines tried to extort increased US assistance from the US in return for the use of Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Station. The Reagan administration decommissioned those bases in 1992, rather than pay extortion money. The message to Aquino was that the era of extortion was over.
Under President Aquino, the negotiating atmosphere was more genteel, but the issues were the same: the Philippines wanted the US to pay for military access, but wanted on-call US defense protection for free. Duterte judges that the Philippines no longer needs on-call defense protection because, as he said, there is no threat of war, owing to his skillful diplomacy.
Neither Russia or China want to assume the burden of carrying the Philippines. Regardless, Duterte seems determined to reduce Philippine both dependence on the US and US leverage over the Philippines.
Duterte’s attitudes are manifestations of a larger historic trend in which Asian countries are taking back from the US and the former colonial powers responsibility for Asian security. China’s expansive claims to sovereignty have brought this historic trend into the open and jolted the US Asian allies out of complacent reliance on the US.
P. I. Pivot to China
On 15 and 16 December, the Philippines and China held their first talks on the creation of a Joint Coast Guard Committee. A joint statement read, “Both sides explored possible programs of maritime cooperation, including combating drug trafficking and other maritime crimes, marine environmental protection, maritime search and rescue, and capacity-building in related areas.”
The establishment of the joint coast guard committee was one of the agreements signed by Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Duterte during the latter’s state visit to China in October.
One result of Duterte’s undertakings with the Chinese is that the Philippines did not protest China’s actions to militarize the islets in the Spratly Island group on which China stations soldiers. The Philippines also is not protesting China’s actions to expand Scarborough Shoal through seabed reclamation and to make improvements to it.
The US has made a long series of economic and diplomatic blunders under the Obama Administration. The crisis in Syria and the death toll in Aleppo is only the most recent and emblematic of those mistakes.
On 17 December, the deputy commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), Brigadier General Hossein Salami told the official Iranian news agency Islamic Republic News Agency that “It is now time for the Islamic conquests. After the liberation of Aleppo, Bahrain’s hopes will be realized and Yemen will be happy with the defeat of the enemies of Islam.”
The Iranians are full of themselves after the “liberation” of Aleppo. This is the second time a senior IRGC officer has threatened the Sunni Arab kingdoms. In June IRGC Quds Force commander Major General Qasem Suleimani threatened Bahrain over its “mistreatment” of a Shiite cleric.
The policy of Iran is to overthrow the Arab kings, most important of those is Saudi Arabia and the repatriation of Mecca to Iran. There is a domino effect planned by the Iranian mullahs, and creating a Shiite dominant government in Yemen was/is an important component of that process. Iran takes credit for the fall of Aleppo, but it may be too soon to take a victory lap on that one (though Iran disagrees with me).
Evacuation of Aleppo
The situation in Aleppo resembles a goat rodeo: Since 15 December the evacuation of fighters, their families and of civilians from Aleppo has stopped and started at least three times. One halt was because Iran claimed it was not consulted and its forces blocked the evacuation. The stoppage on the 18th was because a rebel group burned buses that were positioned for the evacuation.
On 18 December, the Russians, Iranians and the Syrian rebel opposition in Aleppo announced a fourth agreement on evacuation, according to the chief negotiator for the rebel opposition. A key feature of the latest agreement will be reciprocal evacuations of pro-government Shiites living in two villages besieged by the rebel opposition with evacuations of rebels and rebel sympathizers in Aleppo.
The test of the durability of an agreement is the ability of each side to control its fighters. The rebel groups have been fractious and have attacked each other regularly through the duration of their nearly five years of control in Aleppo. Some groups continue to fight on, even now.
RUSSIAN DIPLOMACY IN SYRIA
Russian leadership in steering the outcome of the Syrian crisis was displayed this weekend. The foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey will meet in Moscow on 20 December.
“A trilateral meeting is scheduled to take place in Moscow on 20 December. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke by phone to his counterparts from Turkey and Iran. They welcomed the idea,” Mikhail Bogdanov, Russian deputy foreign minister and special presidential envoy for the Middle East and Africa, told TASS news agency. According to Bogdanov, the idea “has been discussed for a long time”. “We need to talk in a trilateral format primarily about the situation in Syria and around it,” Bogdanov said.
Talks with the Syrian opposition. He also said that the Syrian sides should be encouraged to “come to the negotiating table and agree on a stable ceasefire, to resolve humanitarian issues, to arrive at a political settlement.” “What we have to build on is UN Security Council Resolution 2254,” Bogdanov said.
Russia will continue to assist Syria in the “antiterrorist operation” in the city of Palmyra, Bogdanov said. On such issues, “it is important to coordinate in a broader format, including with the US-led coalition.”
The Russian leadership already said that what happened in Palmyra indicates a lack of proper coordination, Bogdanov said. “So, it is necessary to establish this coordination, then the results will be more effective. Everyone needs these results,” he said. This, in his opinion, is borne out by terrorist attacks in Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere.
“The Turkish leadership, we hope, has already realized that it is necessary to collaborate more closely, and then we will have the result that is important.
The Russians had a good weekend. They brought forward the trilateral talks on Syria by a week. They announced that they helped arrange the Syrian government’s contacts with the Syrian opposition and they committed Russian support for the recovery of Palmyra. They even invited the US-led coalition to coordinate with the Russians.
The Obama Administration has no intention of cooperating in an environment where the Russians are calling the shots. I leave the wisdom of US diplomacy to this blog’s readers to work out for themselves.