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No End in Sight in Persian Gulf Conflict

By Prabasi Nepali

Saudi-led Ultimatum on Qatar Expires – What Next?

The four-nation coalition led by Saudi Arabia, and comprising in addition Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), had issued an ultimatum to Qatar to accept their 13-point demands by Sunday midnight, or face dire consequences. This has now expired without Qatar bowing down one whit. The ‘Gang of Four’ has clearly initiated measures without contemplating ‘cause and effect’ in a volatile region. These were also grossly contrary to regional agreements (GCC/Gulf Cooperation Council) and the tenets of international law. These four countries have clearly bitten something which they are unable to swallow. Or to change track – they can neither move forward, nor backward, both entailing loss of face!

In the latest international development, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, on the eve of his visit to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, called for “serious dialogue” to end the crisis, and warned: “We are worried that the distrust and the disunity could weaken all the parties concerned as well as the entire peninsula.”

Trump’s Troubled Relations in the Korean Peninsula

After talks with visiting South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Washington, US President Donald Trump called for a determined response to North Korea. However, it was now clear that US policy towards the Korean peninsula was in tatters. Besides the strong words, there was absolutely no direction. Trump’s administration was not capable of ‘walking the talk’! He reiterated merely that an era of “strategic patience” (whatever that might mean) over North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes had ended. There was no hint of the way forward. Standing beside Moon in the White House Rose Garden, Trump underlined: “Together we are facing the threat of the reckless and brutal regime in North Korea”, and furthermore “the nuclear and ballistic missile programmes of that regime require a determined response.” But the world was none the wiser what that response was going to be.

Despite the robust rhetoric, it still remains unclear how Trump will find a way forward on North Korea, which is working frantically to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the continental United States. US Defence Secretary, retired General Jim Mattis, on the other hand, has warned the consequences of any military solution would be “tragic on an unbelievable scale.” Trump had pinned his hopes on persuading China, North Korea’s neighbour and main trading partner, to do more to rein in Pyongyang. Now he has clearly grown completely frustrated that Beijing has not taken any stronger action. Trump has called on all regional powers to implement sanctions fully and demand North Korea “choose a better path and do it quickly.”

South Korean President Moon warned of a “stern response” to any provocations and urged Pyongyang to return promptly to talks, or otherwise the leaders of South Korea and the US would “employ both sanctions and dialogue in a phased and comprehensive approach.” Both have stressed that that they are open to renewed dialogue with North Korea but only under circumstances that would lead to Pyongyang giving up its weapons programmes. Moon further developed his approach at an event at the “Centre for Strategic and International Studies” (a think tank in Washington, D.C.) by elucidating that moves by North Korea that could create conditions for dialogue could include a freeze on its nuclear and missile tests. For these talks to be successful, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un would have to participate personally and must have as their ultimate aim the complete dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear programme. But first things first: to bring Kim to the negotiating table, China would have to nudge him, and President Xi Jin-pin seems far from willing to take on this onerous task.

The Trump administration has now switched to a multipronged pressure campaign against Beijing, born of utter frustration with the limited results of their much-touted cooperation on ending North Korea’s nuclear threat. It approved a US dollar 1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan and blacklisted a small Chinese bank over its business ties to North Korea. In addition, the US State Department gave Beijing a dismal grade in a new human rights trafficking report that was specifically endorsed by Ivanka Trump, the ‘First Daughter’ and senior presidential adviser. However, these were merely pin-pricks for Beijing, and nothing that would induce it to change direction in the Korean Question. In a one-to-one telephone call, Trump has now hinted to Xi that the US could go it alone vis-à-vis North Korea.

It has not helped matters that while stressing the importance of the US-South Korean alliance, Trump took aim at Seoul over trade and sharing the costs of mutual defence. He said the US was renegotiating what he characterized as a “rough” deal with South Korea negotiated five years ago by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Trump’s Enormous Reduced Credibility in the World at Large

It has not helped matters in Korea and the world at large that Trump’s international reputation has taken a huge blow. For the United States to negotiate through the various crises and conflicts in the international arena, it would have been helpful if the image of the current President of the United States (“POTUS”) as the leader of ‘the most powerful nation on earth’ would have been an inspiration. Regrettably, it is anything but.  According to a recent survey of people in 37 countries (“Republica Infographics, July 2, 1917), most have little confidence in US President Donald Trump to do the right thing in global affairs. His rating of ‘confidence’ to ‘no confidence’ was a pathetic 22/74 percent. He was evaluated even worse than Chinese president Xi Jin-ping: 28/53 percent or Russian president Vladimir Putin: 27/59 percent. In contrast, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was appraised positively at a moderate 42/31 percent.

Trump’s world-wide reputation compared to Obama has suffered a knock-out blow! There is a huge confidence gap between the two presidents in countries from South Africa (the lowest) to Sweden (the highest). It is also very high in Germany (the key economic player in the European Union), France (Germany’s partner in the neo Franco-German Axis), UK (with its ‘special relationship’ to the US), Japan and South Korea (both strategic allies in North-East Asia).

The world’s perception of Trump was catastrophic – for Trump personally, and the US as a world leader! 75 percent of the representative people considered him arrogant, 65 percent intolerant and 62 percent even dangerous. Only 26 percent considered him well qualified to be president, and only 23 percent adjudged him to be caring about ordinary people. His saving grace was that 55 percent appraised him to be a strong leader, but that was conspicuously little for ‘the leader of the free world’.

Hong Kong: Litmus Test for China’s Demonstration of Power

On the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the motherland and the inaugural ceremony of the fifth-term government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HK-SAR), China’s President Xi Jinping made it evidently clear that there are limits to Hong Kong’s autonomy. He drew a clear red line for handling relations between the mainland and the region, warning against attempts to undermine national sovereignty or challenging the central government’s power. With this, Xi clearly limited the scope of the magic formula: “one country, two systems.”

In a major policy statement, Xi enunciated the political parameters of this aphorism: “Any attempt to endanger national sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government and the authority of the Basic Law [mini constitution] of the HKSAR or use Hong

Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line and is absolutely impermissible.” This was a clear indication that the Hong Kong SAR could never aspire to full-fledged independence from mainland China – its position was even more constrained than that of the Republic of China (Taiwan), and that there were even limits to mature democracy. There could, therefore, be no hope that the spark of democracy from Hong Kong could spring over to the mainland.

At the same time, (considering the immense economic and financial importance of Hong Kong to the mainland) Xi conceded that the people of Hong Kong enjoyed more extensive democratic rights and freedom than at any other time in its history. He tacitly left unsaid that these were vastly more than that enjoyed by the people in the mainland. He, therefore, stressed the need of having a correct understanding of the relationship between “one country” and “two systems”. “One country” upheld the paramountcy to realize and uphold national unity; only then could “different views and even major differences on some specific issues” be tolerated in Hong Kong’s plural society. Hong Kong should focus on development as the top priority to counter the enormous challenges posed by profound changes in the global economic environment, and leverage its strengths and role in advancing the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). Hong Kong’s extreme democracy advocates – especially the young hotheads – must clearly realize that they cannot achieve ‘too much, too soon’; the way ahead is to apply ‘salami tactics’.

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