The Week That Was
Trump Seizes the Syria Opportunity
The Trump administration has gone from embattled to emboldened in a few short days, relying on the foreign policy sphere to deflect attention away from gridlock at home. In the lead-up to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Mar-a-Lago to meet with the U.S. president there was a lot of speculation circulating in the Chinese press that Trump may be all bark and no bite. But then, an opportunity was presented in Syria. The Syrian chemical weapons attack appeared to have had a visceral effect on the U.S. president. His response — limited surgical strike on a Syrian airbase — enabled him to distinguish himself from his predecessor as a man of action.
The attack likely left an impression on Xi, who is trying to interpret whether Trump is serious about threats of unilateral action on North Korea. The U.S. administration has already been leaking reports of advanced weapons sales to Taiwan to pressure the Chinese and an April 28 U.N. Security Council meeting called by the United States is raising suspicion that the White House is trying to build an ultimatum for the Chinese to either work with the United States or deal with the consequences of the United States going it alone on secondary sanctions and building a credible military option. Of course, U.S. unilateral options against North Korea are already severely limited and Beijing can still leverage selective economic cooperation against Pyongyang in dealing with Trump. We will be watching China’s moves in the days ahead to see just how much of an impact Trump had in his meetings with the Chinese leader.
Though the Syria attack may have helped in shaping strategy on North Korea, it has raised risks for the U.S. military in Syria. Russia is very frustrated that the United States did not give it a chance to be part of the solution in response to the Syrian chemical weapons attack. Even as Russia denied Syrian responsibility of the attack, it would have still liked to have spun the situation (as it did in 2013) by showing it can work with the United States to minimize the threat and then use that dialogue to bargain on other pending matters, like sanctions. But Russia is now reverting to its traditional spoiler role by pulling its deconfliction with the United States, thereby raising the risk of collision in Syrian airspace and hoping that will help draw the United States back into a dialogue.
Terror of the Week
A suicide bomber detonated an improvised explosive device on a St. Petersburg metro Monday, killing 14 and injuring more than 50. A second bomb was also on the subway trains, though it did not detonate. The perpetrator was an ethnic Uzbek from Kyrgyzstan who gained Russian citizenship in 2011. It is unclear whether the suspect was a grassroots radical, or part of a larger network tied to Islamic State. Russian authorities have already rounded up suspected collaborators in St. Petersburg and Moscow and the Kremlin is trying to take advantage of the aftermath to contain building internal dissent. To that end, the Kremlin is organizing rallies against terrorism on April 6 and April 8 while outlawing unsanctioned demonstrations against the government. There is also concern this may further sour Russians view of Central Asian migrants or curb migrant flows into Russia. If so, then the Central Asian economies could further decline, increasing the likelihood for more radicalization.
Another resourceful terrorist attack in Europe took place on Friday when a truck drove into pedestrians in downtown Stockholm. The truck used in the attack reportedly belongs to the brewery company Spendrups and was hijacked earlier in the day as the driver was unloading. Two suspects were arrested and police say they found an unused bomb in the truck. Recall that the Berlin attacker, Anis Amri also hijacked the truck he used to carry out a similar vehicular attack in December. Unfamiliarity with operating the truck may have contributed to the limited casualties.
Dealmaking on Greece
After weeks of negotiations, Greece and its creditors reached an agreement on a series of reforms that Athens will have to implement to comply with its bailout program. As part of the agreement, inspectors from the creditor institutions will return to Greece in the coming days. While today’s agreement allows the bailout program to get back on track after months of delays, important questions such as the disbursement of the next tranche of financial aid for Greece, the participation of the International Monetary Fund in the program, and the granting of debt relief measures are still left hanging.
Quote of the Week
"North Korea has launched yet another intermediate-range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment."
- U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
Tension between the United States and Russia is once again on the rise. In the wake of a limited U.S. strike on Syria, in which two U.S. Navy destroyers fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat air base in western Homs on April 6, the Kremlin pulled a 2015 agreement with Washington designed to avoid military collisions in Syrian airspace. The attack will raise the stakes of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's approaching visit to Moscow on April 11-12.
Governments around the world are grappling with the threat of jihadist violence. And though Indonesia is no stranger to this struggle, its domestic jihadist movement pales in comparison with those in the Middle East or even elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Wahhabism, the hard-line, conservative strain of Islam that underpins extremist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State, hasn't caught on in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country, home to more than 250 million people. In fact, Indonesia has contributed only a few hundred fighters to the Islamic State's efforts in Iraq and Syria — fewer than Russia or France.
During recent state elections, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s center-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a commanding victory in the all-important state of Uttar Pradesh. Emboldened by its sweeping success in the country's heartland, the BJP is doubling down on its Hindu nationalist platform — as evidenced by the party’s choice of Hindu cleric Yogi Adityanath as the new chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. One of his first acts in office was a sweeping crackdown on beef sellers in the state.
The Week Ahead
Watch North Korea
Coming out of the Trump-Xi summit, Asia’s attention will turn next week to North Korea, which warned prior to Xi’s visit that it would continue with missile and nuclear tests in the face of expanded U.S. sanctions. In turn, regional leaders will watch for any signs of accelerated Chinese efforts to rein in Pyongyang. Whether to signal resolve to the U.S. or for technical purposes, or both, North Korea may conduct another nuclear test any day now. One possibility is that Pyongyang will time the test to coincide with its next parliamentary session, which starts April 11. Such a move would severely test any effort at U.S.-Chinese diplomatic cooperation on the matter. At the very least, another North Korean nuclear test will further incentivize the U.S. to expand missile defense support for South Korea and throughout the region. Mike Pence’s April 15-25 visit to South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Australia and Hawaii will be important to watch in this context.
For its part, China will continue to urge diplomacy and reiterate its opposition to U.S. military action against Pyongyang, even as North Korea’s actions and Washington’s growing regional defense footprint threaten to close the window for effective diplomacy. From April 10-14, China’s top nuclear envoy Wu Dawei will visit South Korea. The trip, coming just after the Xi-Trump summit and trilateral meetings between U.S., South Korea and Japan, will focus heavily on Pyongyang’s possible nuclear test. In addition, Wu is scheduled to meet with South Korean presidential hopefuls to discuss Seoul’s future plan of the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD).
High Stakes for Rex in Moscow
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will visit Moscow from April 11-12 — the first official trip to Russia by the new administration. Tillerson will hold meetings with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, as well as possibly with President Vladimir Putin. The meetings come as U.S.-Russian tensions have heightened in recent weeks between U.S. airstrike in Syria, allegations of Russian support for the Syrian chemical strike, and ongoing investigations of Russian meddling in the U.S. election. Moscow needs to have Washington at the negotiating table, though Tillerson has shown he can be tough on Russia in the past. The atmosphere going into Tillerson’s trip do not hint at compromises out of Washington, however this will be a key visit to gauge the room both sides have to negotiate.
Venezuela’s Default Risk Growing Critical
Venezuela’s government is slated to make payments on $3.1 billion of debt from state oil and gas company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) during April and May—with $2.1 billion that debt maturing in April. The first tranche of payments is due April 12. Following months of trying to secure the funds to meet these obligations, PDVSA announced on April 7 that it would make the payments. These are crucial payments for Venezuela, since a default on foreign debt would even further restrict the company’s access to credit and already declining oil production would enter an even sharper decline, threatening the country’s already low levels of imports.
Separately, Venezuela’s political opposition coalition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) will try to keep up the pace of protests against the government, beginning with a call for mass protest in Caracas on April 8. Sensing that the government is further consolidating its control over the country’s political system, some opposition politicians have seized upon the administration’s March 30 attempt to dissolve the National Assembly as a catalyst for protests. The largest demonstrations held last week were limited to the eastern part of Caracas, an area where the opposition has historically rallied. Such protests do not actually threaten the government’s overall stability. However, if protest activity spreads to the historically pro-government western neighborhoods of Caracas and overwhelm security forces, a wave of protests similar to the 2014 demonstrations against the government would likely develop. Such a series of protests would be far more threatening to the government now, when formerly pro-government citizens would be more willing to join in. Still, it is important to remember that constraints such as the government’s increasing control over the importation and distribution of food, and crackdowns by security forces could limit the protests from spreading.
Raisi vs. Rouhani
Registration begins April 11 for Iran’s crucial presidential elections coming in mid-May. Current President Hassan Rouhani is expected to officially announce his bid for reelection in a press conference on April 10th. Already, however, conservative cleric Sayyid Ebrahim Raisi announced his intention to run last week. Raisi’s entry is a critical one and gives Rouhani a powerful opposing candidate that can unite the conservative vote that was fractured when Rouhani easily won in 2013. Raisi is a very well respected cleric and has even been floated as being a possible successor to Ali Khamenei’s as Iran’s supreme leader. This week's U.S. airstrike on a Syrian airbase adds to U.S.-Iranian tensions and aids the conservative’s narrative against Rouhani’s nuclear deal with the West. This works in Raisi’s favor as it justifies the need to become more cautious in dealing with the U.S. and the West. Despite this Iran does not want to jeopardize the sanctions relief it worked hard to get tempering the type of responses Tehran will be willing to make. In any case, should Raisi win we would instead see a pullback in the extent of economic reintegration with the west, particularly around the areas of foreign investment, but not a complete reversal in that process.
- April 10: Spain will host a gathering of southern European Union nations, bringing together France, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus and Malta.
- April 10-11: The G-7 foreign ministers will meet in Italy.
- April 11: Cyprus reunification talks with the United Nations will restart.
- April 16: Serbia will hold the second round of presidential elections.
- April 11: Italian President Sergio Mattarella will visit Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
- April 11-12: U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will visit Russia.
- April 12: Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow will visit Kazakhstan.
- April 14: Moscow will host 12-nation talks on the conflict in Afghanistan.
- April 14: The Eurasian Economic Union will hold a summit in Bishkek.
- April 10-14: China's top nuclear envoy, Wu Dawei, will visit South Korea to discuss North Korea's nuclear program and the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD).
- April 10-16: Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will visit Japan.
- April 11: Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines will commence joint patrols in the Sulu Sea.
- April 11: Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg will conclude an official visit to China.
- April 11: The North Korean parliament convenes for the first time in nine months.
- April 11: Myanmar President U Htin Kyaw will conclude a state visit to China.
- April 15-25: U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will travel to the Republic of Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Australia and Hawaii.
- April 10: Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will conclude a visit to India.
- April 12: The budget session of India's parliament will come to a close.
- April 10: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will hold a press conference to announce his presidential candidacy.
- April 10-16: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will visit Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar.
- April 16: Turkish citizens will begin voting in a referendum on constitutional changes.
- April 10: Cuba will lead a Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA) Meeting to express political support to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
- April 12: The NATO head will meet with U.S. President Donald Trump.
- April 12: Brazil's central bank will meet.
- April 12: Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) is scheduled to make a bond payment.
- April 13: Chile's central bank will meet.
- April 15: India's governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will hold its two-day national executive meeting.
- April 13: Malian intermediary authorities will be installed in extreme north.