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China Could Make a Big Move in the South China Sea beginning September

By Harry J. Kazianis

Harry KazianisWASHINGTON, Aug 14: It seems if the People’s Republic of China is going to make a push to radically alter the status-quo in the South China Sea—by reclaiming the hotly disputed Scarborough Shoal that is clearly within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines—we now have a good idea of when that might happen: sometime between early September, after the G-20 summit being hosted in China, and the U.S. presidential election on November 8th.

The idea was laid out in a recent article in the South China Morning Post in an article dated August 13th. The report, quoting “a source familiar with the matter”, said that Beijing would not carry out any reclamation work on the Shoal before hosting the G-20 next month but could begin construction before America goes to the polls.

“Since the G20 will be held in Hangzhou next month, and regional peace will be the main topic among leaders of the great powers, China will refrain from [acting on the] reclamation plan,” explained the source, who was not identified.

As I noted in a recent piece, if China were to make a big move in the South China Sea, especially to counteract the recent ruling in the Hague that nullified any possible claims to almost the entirety of this important body of water, after the G-20 and before the U.S. presidential election makes the most sense. As I explained:

“Always looking to enhance its status as a rising superpower as well as play the part that China is the ultimate partner nation and never one to start trouble, Beijing will follow a carefully well scripted playbook in the South China Sea — lots of fiery talk and signaling, but no escalatory steps for the time being. China would not want to risk having any drama at this prestigious gathering — beyond what could occur already when it comes to tensions in Asia. Why rock the boat and lose face? Now is simply not the time for a squabble. I would argue Beijing has every incentive to hold its fire until after the summit.

But the plot thickens from there, adding more reason to the argument that Beijing is holding back for the right time to respond. Why not take advantage of the daily media drama show that is the U.S. Presidential election cycle and save any escalatory moves in the South China Sea so they simply get buried in the news cycle?

There could not be a better time to start trouble in the South China Sea, at a time when the United States—truly the only nation that could really deter Beijing from troublemaking — will be very much distracted in the business of selecting its next Commander-in-Chief. American as well as global media will be very much focused on the battles to come between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton...”

But there is also now another reason such an anonymous source might want to come forward and reveal such information, stating such a move “is a must for China”, especially right now: it puts pressure on Manila to reach a settlement. With reports like the above advancing a narrative of possible reclamation as well as recent deployments of large numbers of ships around the shoal as well as ‘bomber selfies’ over the area, China is signaling it may be getting ready to act boldly. And with newly appointed Philippines envoy, former President Fidel Ramos, just concluding talks in Hong Kong, in what was described as an ice-breaking session, pressure is mounting on Manila to not only speed up negotiations, but agree to a settlement on China’s terms.

How Washington responds to the gathering storm clouds over the South China Sea is critical. The Obama Administration should continue to make clear—it has done so now on at least a few occasions, according to press reports—reclamation at Scarborough would be a mistake, signaling the creation of what Center for New American Security (CNAS) scholar Patrick Cronin called a “pink line”, essentially that Washington could, and I emphasize could, consider such a move a game changer, and act according.

But such statements, with this administration having such little time in office left and likely unable to react decisively unless staring down the possibility of a major crisis—knowing it would need to hand off any major policy shifts in Asia to a new administration—could ring hollow. Considering this, China might decide now is the time to lock in its gains in the South China Sea.

One thing is for certain, it stands to reason Asia watchers here in Washington may very well have a very busy fall indeed.

@ Harry J. Kazianis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest and Senior Editor at The National Interest Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter: @grecianformula.

‘Meeting of minds’: India, US put Pakistan in the dock over terrorism

NEW DELHI, Aug 30: India and the US tried on Tuesday to put Pakistan in the docks for harbouring extremists and making a distinction between good and bad terrorists.

Also, the two countries decided to set up a trilateral dialogue on Afghanistan — another irksome development for Pakistan — as they stepped up their counter-terrorism cooperation by expanding intelligence-sharing about known or suspected extremists and terrorist threats.

The decision was taken at the India-US annual strategic and commercial dialogue in the national capital.

“I am happy to note that there was a meeting of minds on this issue (of terrorism),” foreign minister Sushma Swaraj said at the joint press conference after her meeting with US secretary of state John Kerry.

“We agreed that nations must not maintain double standards, such as the categorisation of good and bad terrorists, nor act as sanctuaries and safe havens for terrorist organisations,” she said.

Kerry echoed Swaraj’s views, saying the US “stands with India against all terrorism , no matter where it comes from”.

He said he had spoken to the Pakistan leadership about the need for Islamabad to “deprive any (terrorist) group of sanctuary”.

His remarks came at a time bitter neighbours Pakistan and India are locked in hostile rhetoric over public protests in Jammu and Kashmir over the killing of a militant leader on July 8. The unrest has claimed 70 lives and wounded hundreds of people. Pakistan has called the militant a martyr to ratchet up anti-India sentiments.

Kerry named the Haqqani network that operates in Afghanistan as well as the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which is blamed for the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008.

He backed Sushma’s demand for bringing to book those behind the Mumbai attacks and this year’s terrorist strike on the Pathankot airbase.

“It is vital that Pakistan join with other nations in tackling this challenge, and in fairness, in recent weeks and months they have been moving more authoritatively,” Kerry said.

The enhanced Indo-US counter-terrorism cooperation will include expanding exchange of screening information and speeding up processing of requests from both nations for information about terrorist suspects.

“We will intensify intelligence-sharing and continue to work closely to get terrorist entities listed by the UN system,” Sushma said.

The two countries also concluded an over-arching cyber security agreement.

US, India sign military logistics agreement

WASHINGTON, Aug 29: The United States and India signed an agreement on Monday governing the use of each other's land, air and naval bases for repair and resupply, a step toward building defence ties as they seek to counter the growing maritime assertiveness of China.

Welcoming the signing of the bilateral 'Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement' (LEMOA), defence minister Manohar Parrikar and US defence secretary Ashton Carter said the pact will facilitate opportunities for "practical engagement and exchange".

LEMOA facilitates the provision of logistical support, supplies, and services between the US and Indian militaries on a reimbursable basis, and provides a framework to govern them.

"They agreed on the importance (that) this framework will provide to facilitate innovative and advanced opportunities in defence technology and trade cooperation. To this end, the US has agreed to elevate defence trade and technology sharing with India to a level commensurate with its closest allies and partners," said a joint statement after the pact was signed.

According to the statement, the defence ties between the two countries is based on their "shared values and interests," and their "abiding commitment to global peace and security."

During their meeting, Parrikar and Carter discussed the "wealth of progress" in bilateral cooperation and deepening strategic partnership between the United States and India.

The US has agreed to elevate defence trade and technology sharing with India to a level commensurate with its closest allies and partners.

The agreement, a relatively mundane one concerning day-to-day military logistics, is nonetheless a milestone in the US-India defence relationship because of the outsized political importance it had taken on in India, where it had touched on domestic sensitivities, experts said.

The signing of the agreement will "make the logistics of joint operations so much easier and so much more efficient," US defence secretary Ash Carter said in a news briefing with defence minister Manohar Parrikar on Monday.

The agreement will allow the Indian and US navies to have an easier time supporting each other in joint operations and exercises and when providing humanitarian assistance, Parrikar said.

Washington's desire for deeper security cooperation with India had been complicated without the signing of the logistics agreement as well as two other pacts that would allow for secure communications and the exchange of nautical and other data. The agreements are considered routine between the United States and its other defence partners.

But India has had concerns such an agreement would commit it to hosting US troops at its bases, or draw it into a military alliance with the United States and undermine its traditional autonomy. Carter and Parrikar reached an agreement "in principle" in April, but had yet to finalize the details.

Carter has made closer military ties with India a priority, and established a special unit within the Pentagon last year to promote cooperation with that country. Parrikar's visit to Washington this week marks the sixth interaction between the two top defence officials.

The signing of the logistics agreement indicates the priority the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi places on a closer defence relationship with the United States, said Benjamin Schwartz, until last year the India country director at the Pentagon.

"For years, there has been tremendous misinformation put out into the Indian press about these agreements," said Schwartz, now with the US-India Business Council, which promotes trade ties between the two countries.

"What the signing of this shows is that the Modi government is willing to take and suffer the short-term political criticism of signing these things for the longer-term benefit of building the defence relationship with the United States."

Both Carter and Parrikar went to pains on Monday to make clear that the logistics agreement did not allow for basing of US troops in India.

"It's not a basing agreement of any kind," Carter said.

In a first, Clinton tops 50% support from US voters in poll; Trump 41%

WASHINGTON, Aug 26: More than half of respondents in a new poll said they plan to vote for Hillary Clinton -- the first time the Democratic presidential candidate has breached that all-important 50% threshold.

The poll released on Thursday by Quinnipiac University found the former secretary of state leading Trump 51 to 41% in a head to head race.

“We are starting to hear the faint rumblings of a Hillary Clinton landslide as her 10-point lead is further proof that Donald Trump is in a downward spiral as the clock ticks,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll.

Support for Clinton falls below 50% if third-party candidates are thrown into the equation.
The former first lady gets 45%, with Trump polling 38%, when Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party contender Jill Stein are added to the mix.

Johnson gets 10% and Stein is at 4% in the Quinnipiac poll.

Trump’s campaign has stumbled in recent weeks after a series of perceived gaffes. Commentators say it has struggled to make the transition from the scrappy party nomination fight to the battle to become US commander in chief.

“Trump’s missteps, stumbles and gaffes seem to outweigh Clinton’s shaky trust status and perceived shady dealings. Wow, is there any light at the end of this dark and depressing chapter in American politics?” Malloy said.

Meanwhile, Clinton, who is looking to make history as America’s first female commander in chief, has hit choppy waters as well amid the continuing fallout over her misbegotten decision to use a private email server for State Department correspondence.

She also has come under scrutiny for allegedly breaching a firewall between her family charity and her role as secretary of state, sparking Republican complaints of special favours granted to donors to the Clinton Foundation.

But despite her self-inflicted wounds, many voters perceive fewer potential drawbacks to a Clinton presidency, and she continues to poll well ahead of her Republican rival.

Quinnipiac’s nationwide telephone survey of some 1,500 likely voters, taken from August 18 to 24, had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

One-in-five US Republicans want Trump to drop out

TrumpNEW YORK, Aug 10: Nearly one-fifth of registered Republicans want Donald Trump to drop out of the race for the White House, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday, reflecting the turmoil his candidacy has sown within his party.

Some 19% think the New York real estate magnate should drop out, 70% think he should stay in and 10% say they "don't know," according to the Aug. 5-8 poll of 396 registered Republicans. The poll has a confidence interval of six percentage points.

Among all registered voters, some 44% want Trump to drop out. That is based on a survey of 1,162 registered voters, with a confidence interval of 3 percentage points. That is 9 points higher than his support for the presidency in the latest Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll registered on Monday.

The figures underscored deep divisions within the Republican Party over Trump's candidacy. A number of prominent Republicans have declined to endorse him in the November 8 election against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, citing his fiery rhetoric+ and policy proposals such as building a wall along the US-Mexican border and temporarily banning Muslims from entering the country.

Trump found himself embroiled in yet another controversy on Tuesday after saying at a rally that gun rights activists could act to stop Clinton from nominating liberal U.S. Supreme Court justices - a comment his campaign said was misinterpreted, but that Clinton's campaign called "dangerous."

"If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks," Trump said at the rally at the University of North Carolina. "Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don't know," he continued. The US Constitution's Second Amendment guarantees a right to keep and bear arms.

He had previously stirred criticism for engaging in a spat with the parents of a Muslim US soldier killed in Iraq. Republican Senator Susan Collins said on Monday that that dispute led her to announce she would not vote for Trump.

In addition, 50 prominent national security experts signed an open letter saying they would not vote for Trump in the fall, saying he "lacks the character, values, and experience" to be president. Trump dismissed the group as part of the Washington establishment that he blames for many of the United States' problems.

To be sure, neither Trump nor Clinton enjoys great popularity. Some 53 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of Clinton, who has been accused of mishandling her emails as secretary of state, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling.

Nearly 63 percent have an unfavorable view of Trump.

Clinton led Trump by more than 7 percentage points in a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday, up from a less than 3-percentage-point lead late last week.

India witnessed religiously motivated killings in 2015, says US report

WASHINGTON, Aug 10: A US report on religious freedom around the world in 2015, released on Wednesday, took note of the returning of state awards by Indian filmmakers and authors protesting growing intolerance.

The report, an annual exercise by the state department, also noted “reports of religiously motivated killings, assaults, riots, coerced religious conversions, actions restricting the right of individuals to change religious beliefs, discrimination, and vandalism”.

It was in this context that the report noted the return of awards in 2015: “Several well-known authors, filmmakers, and other civil society members returned national and state-sponsored awards to protest what they said was the growing religious and cultural intolerance in the country.”

This is the first time that the state department has commented on the status of religious freedom in India with a full year under the Narendra Modi government.

The report also cited PM Modi’s speech in February on what the government was doing to address the issue: “My government will ensure that there is complete freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence.”

“On several occasions, such as at a meeting in February with Christians in New Delhi, Prime Minister Modi publicly stated he would defend religious freedom,” the state department said in its report which documents the allegations of violence against the Christian community in various parts of the country including Punjab.

“Christians who reported that they were victims of religiously-motivated violence or other animus voiced concern about the lack of police action against such incidents, as well as of hostility by the police towards Christians.

“According to the All India Christian Council and the Evangelical Fellowship of India, police resisted filing criminal complaints and had in several instances threatened falsely to incriminate the victims,” said the report.

But at the release of the report at the state department, officials faced questions about growing intolerance in the US itself, specially in light of the remarks and comments from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

The US is outside the purview of the report, a state department official said, adding the administration had addressed concerns raised by Trump’s remarks.

President Barack Obama has been scathing in his criticism of Trump’s call, for instance, to temporarily suspend immigration from areas of the world impacted by terrorism, mostly Muslim-majority countries.

The state department report’s section on India cited instances and incidents of religion-related violence and discrimination based on local news reports.

And, it added, US officials at all levels, starting at the president, had engaged their Indian counterparts and “underscored the importance of religious freedom throughout the year”.




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