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From Strait of Hormuz to South China Sea and Assam

BY M.R. JOSSE
KATHMANDU: Seminal, if yet incipient, geopolitical developments are taking shape on the America-Iran chessboard, with the strategic waterway – the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian/Arab Gulf – constituting a key element of that narrative.
Though attention to the fraught Washington-Tehran relationship had been directed in this very space last week, recent follow-up events compel further notice. For starters, there is American President Donald Trump’s rather offhand comment at a press conference at the White House – “I would meet with Iran if they wanted to meet” – barely a week after trading bellicose threats with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
STRATEGIC WATERWAY
That was followed by the Trump administration re-imposing a raft of sanctions on Iran, a result of Washington withdrawing from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May. The sanctions are tailored to gradually increasing their impact, covering – from November – Iran’s oil exports, as well.
Separately, there has been a flurry of anti-regime demonstrations across Iran mainly triggered by soaring inflation and a plunge in the value of the Iranian currency in recent times. Clearly, such problems could be exacerbated as the new sanctions begin to bite; that is what most observers believe is the real intention of the US.
Recall that, as Reuters has reported, the Trump is “quietly pushing ahead in a bid to create a new security and political alliance with six Gulf Arab states, Egypt and Jordan, in part to counter Iran’s expansion in the region.”
Notable, too, is that Tehran ordered a military drill in the Strait of Hormuz (not publicized by the Iranian media) in a follow-up on an earlier threat that any move to stop the export of Iranian oil would cause her to block the passageway through which an estimated 20% of the world’s energy flows, annually.
While it is hard to believe that the re-imposition of US sanctions would lead, ultimately, to regime change, there can be little doubt that, over the long haul, it could increase the clamour inside Iran for resumption of direct dialogue with the United States, a la the Singapore Trump-Kim summit in June.
What is equally difficult to ingest is that Tehran would block the Strait of Hormuz. After all, that would not only be economically counter-productive but it would also fly in the face of the close relationship that has developed, among others, with China, Russia and Germany, co-signatories of the 2015 nuclear deal that have indicated their intention to continue to do business with Tehran, US sanctions or no.
Indeed, already the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javed Zarif is on a global mission, with first stop in Beijing, to coordinate policies to mitigate the impact of the US moves.
Incidentally, it would be salutary to learn, in due time, how Pakistan and India react to US sanctions on Iranian oil, come November.
BREAKTHROUGH?
One of the highlights of the ASEAN-China ministerial meeting in Singapore 2, on the sidelines of the 51st ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting, August 2, is the announcement by Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, at the start of the annual conference, that both sides have agreed to an initial draft that will be the basis of future negotiations on the South China Sea dispute. Balakrishnan called it a “milestone”.
Tellingly, the move came as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo touched down in Malaysia on the first leg of a regional swing that took him to Singapore where August 4 he pledged to provide nearly $ 300 million in new security funding for Southeast Asia, as, to quote Reuters, “China forges ahead with plans to bolster its engagement in the region.”
To return to the draft agreement between China and ASEAN on the South China Sea spat: firstly, it was ten years in the making; secondly, while, as per AFP, Vietnam offers the strongest opposition to Beijing’s activities in that expanse of water, “there was little sign of serious resistance from other countries, signaling how opposition to China’s aggressive expansion in the resource-rich waters has ebbed in recent years in Southeast Asia.”
To be noted is that, as per the draft text, Beijing suggests that China and the 10 ASEAN states should carry out joint military exercises regularly – but the drills should not involve countries outside the region “unless the parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objection.”
Beijing’s message is, in essence, that China and ASEAN could work well together in resolving any disputes vis-à-vis the South China Sea sans involvement of extra-regional powers.
Two things need to be borne in mind: one, that agreement on a final China-ASEAN accord may take some more time, maybe a few years; two, that the conflicting messages from Washington about the essence of the ‘America First’ doctrine are likely to work in China’s favor.
ASSAM: A MESS
As citizens of a country that shares an open border with India we can understand the mess that has been produced in India’s state of Assam, bordering Bangladesh, where New Delhi not only effectively stripped four million people of citizenship but sparked fears of mass deportation of Muslims.
Though the question of illegal migration from Bangladesh to India has been hanging fire since India’s military intervention in erstwhile East Pakistan, Indian politicians had over the years – starting in 1971 when Bangladesh was created – adopted a curiously complacent attitude, preferring to defer the issue endlessly, using the ‘new Assamese’ as vote banks.
Only after the brutal massacre of about 2,000 suspected migrants, mostly Muslims, in 1983 were efforts initiated to make an official register of citizens – but implementation was laggard – until the BJP won control of Assam in 2016 after promising to expel illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and protect the rights of indigenous groups.
With India’s general elections now less than a year away, Nepal will watch how things develop, mindful of the havoc open/porous borders can create.

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