China

Yemen – Saleh’s death is the dangerous slice in the Iran & Saudi sandwich

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Even before the Arab Spring, CM (in a previous life) wrote that Yemen was a trouble spot. It’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh (Sunni) has died of natural causes – he was assassinated in a spate of tribal violence in the capital Sana’a yesterday. No stranger to being an oppressive tyrant during his rule, after being ousted in the Arab Spring he was in recent years working with the Houthi tribe (Shi’ite) to regain power before switching back to a US backed Saudi-friendly deal maker. He proved that power is more important than religious sect. However the Houthi weren’t prepared to suffer a turncoat who betrayed them so Saleh was duly dealt with.

Why is Saleh’s death important? What it now does is give Saudi Arabia more will to take more decisive action against the Iran backed Houthi. It is no surprise that Saudi Arabia has cleaned house with the arrests of  royal family members to tighten the inner circle. It smells like the early stages of broader tit-for-tat skirmishes before all out conflict ensues. Yemen is often argued as a proxy war between the two.

While many are distracted by the US Embassy to Jerusalem as an unnecessary ‘in-the-face” action, it is a very firm line in the sand to where the US cards already lie. No big surprises. For now most Gulf States want Israel on their side to help them defend against and ultimately defeat Iran.

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At the narrow Bab al-Mandeb Strait separating Yemen and Djibouti/Eritrea, cargo ships make their way up the Red Sea to the Suez Canal, could become a major choke point. This year multiple US, Saudi and Emirati warships have been attacked by Houthi rebel forces. In January 2017 a  Saudi al-Madinah frigate was sunk in the strait. An Emirati HSV-2 swift naval craft was also put out of action in late 2015.

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Safe access to the strait is crucial at present because of Egypt’s reliance on imported LNG to maintain stable electricity supply. One LNG tanker heads to Egypt each weeknight through the canal. Just under 10% of global trade goes through it as well. Any blockage or restricted access would force ships to sail the long way around the Horn of Africa adding another 40% to the journey. This would have significant impacts on shipping and trade. Markets aren’t factoring anything at this stage.

The problem with naval conflict is that Yemen is backed by Iran which in turn is one of Russia’s best clients. Iran possesses the SS-N-22 Sunburn missile which is a supersonic anti-ship missile which even the US has no answer for. In recent years this has been upgraded to the Super Sunburn (P-270) which is even more lethal. It is a ramjet which travels at Mach-3 meaning if fired inside a 100km range then the target is likely to be toast (video here). It can be launched from a ship, submarine or land.

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Iran could blame a whole host of tribes (Sunni or Shia) sick of being under the jackboot of effective Saudi control/influence for an attack.

On December 2, Israeli jets bombed an Iranian military weapons base in Syria. Israel has warned Iran it won’t tolerate any military presence on Syrian soil. We shouldn’t forget that China has also deployed its special forces to Syria to help Assad. Clearly the Chinese see a good opportunity to clean up some of the spoils in the region. China is always happy to help out nations that are under sanction. It adds more mess into the geopolitical sphere.

While the GCC has stepped up its air attacks on Yemen post the death of Saleh, he was the only one that has been able to unite the country. Indeed it is possible that the secession of the south becomes an issue. At the time of reunification of North and South Yemen in 1990 many in the south felt their northern neighbors were pillaging too much of their oil reserve wealth. Even their private land was appropriated and spread among the Sana’a elite. Now that Saleh has gone, and Yemen fragmented again, we may see old scores settled. The Southern Movement (loyal to exiled President Hadi) in Yemen wants to take back what was stolen from them. So Saleh’s death may open a vacuum of more instability.

Iran would relish the opportunity of a fractured Yemen to further build its influence. Bab al-Mandeb may become a flashpoint to fight the proxy war. It is extremely messy, creates proper disruption and pushes Saudi Arabia and Iran closer to conflict.

Which ever way you cut it, diplomacy in the Middle East (what little there is) looks set to worsen. In a sense we are dealing with two large clients of Russia (Iran) and America (SA). Now China is siding with Russian interests by using it as a test run of its military muscle. China isn’t committing anything major but it wants to be at the negotiating table when it all goes pear shaped.

It smells very similar to the lead up to the Arab Spring. More turmoil and complacent markets which are not quite absorbing the realities of “local problems” spreading to another neighborhood. Sure we’ve seen many leaders overthrown in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and so on in the last uprising but the pressure on Saudi is mounting hence the recent crackdown internally.

The other dark horse is Erdogan in Turkey. He is facing a corruption probe over money laundering to help Iran evade sanctions and he seems keen to externalise his problems so he can shut down the local threat. He is threatening to cut off ties with Israel if the US relocates the embassy but for a man with clear ambitions to revive the Ottoman Empire that fell less than 100 years ago that is a mere formality in the future.

The flashpoint remains Yemen. It has the perfect storm of a pawn in a global game of chess. While it whiffs of local tribes seeking revenge there are too many willing to help them achieve their aims which only plays to the broader ructions throughout the rest of the Middle East. Last week Houthi rebels launched a missile attack against the UAE nuclear power plant under construction. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely

Highways to Hell. Railways to Ruin

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Zero Hedge has an interesting expose on a report that China is expediting the construction of a 6 lane highway toward North Korea’s border. It makes perfect sense and supports what CM has said about China taking action on North Korea and replacing Kim Jong Un with a puppet they can control. Forget the WW3 rhetoric. It is far cleaner to have China deal with the problem. The constant jaw-boning from Trump is to get China to hurry up. Of course there is a limit to the patience. The so-called G1112 Ji’an–Shuangliao Expressway is under construction. China’s Jilin province has even upgraded road infrastructure inside some parts of North Korea. It would be useful in getting tanks and troops to the border quickly. There is method in the madness and it is quite a common infrastructure to put in place for obvious reasons. North Korea is hugely strategic to China’s border security – a buffer from the US backed South Koreans.

Probably many are unaware that Mongolia which divides China and Russia has a railway developed by the Russians which runs on a Russian rail gauge. Mongolia is rich with resources so any raw materials exported to China must change bogeys at the border. It is the same with the Kazakh-China border. Russian rail gauges. So in the event of war, troops and supplies can be efficiently transported. Sure an enemy can bomb a railway but in terms of transporting lots of equipment and heavy armaments quickly rail is very efficient.

While the news looks startling it is nothing more than business as usual for the Chinese. Before the highway is completed the Chinese still have around 150,000 troops stationed near the border.

Why China will effectively annex North Korea

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PDF REPORT HERE

I’ve been saying this for months. Think through the logic. China doesn’t want to lose the strategic buffer North Korea provides.. Beijing doesn’t want US friendly forces on its border. How to make a bad situation work for China? Bite the bullet and annex North Korea. Kim Jong Un has been brazenly telling the world to shove its diplomacy thinking the decades old practice of threats will keep on working. He’s wrong.

China must realize that the West is against Trump taking action for no other reason than he’s Trump. It is a strange world where many of America’s long term allies are backing the other side. Trump is merely filling the geopolitical  vacuum left by his predecessor. Trump is absolutely right to consider taking an increasingly dangerous threat off the table and China knows it is no longer dealing with a political powderpuff.

Still China wins in many ways by turning North Korea into its own administration. First, it isn’t Trump. Second, China will not be condemned for removing the threat and installing its own puppet. Third, China keeps the strategic geographical buffer and fourth China gets to show itself a proper force to be reckoned with in the Asia Pacific region by taking a credible threat off the table.

While no credit will be given to Trump for forcing China’s hand, be sure that an effective annexation by China will be a major win for him. Sure North Korea most likely retains the name and the sovereignty but China’s military becomes a form of blue helmets administering PyongYang’s every move. Kim Jong Un is on borrowed time. Sometimes long used strategy outstays it’s welcome.

How will financial markets react? While they may sell off initially expect them to rally hard if China pulls off regime change with precision. Surely Kim will soon get the ‘horse’s head in the bed’ scenario handed to him anytime soon from Beijing. It is the only viable solution which actually works remarkably well for China.

Abe’s “Trump” card will be more effective than the UN

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The Japanese newspaper front pages are all splashed with the latest North Korean nuke test. Japanese PM Shinzo Abe has to quit asking the UN to step up sanctions. That is a purely optical illusion. Kim Jong Un is playing a different game. He doesn’t care. Trump is Abe’s only viable card to get Japan out of this long term mess. If Kim does possess the H-bomb it is clear that he intends to exploit his new toy box to snub his critics and take even harder lines to extort money.

While war is the least desired outcome, Kim must be careful not to bring down his own demise. Obama was the first US president Kim had direct exposure to but he would be wise to treat Trump as completely different. Trump maybe willing to remove the cancer that many presidents before haven’t. The sad reality is that having a 33yo dictator who subjugates his people like his father and grandfather before with such disdain has little to lose.

Getting a capable nuclear arsenal is not desired. It is clear he’d be willing to sell his technology to other tinpot dictatorships to top up the DPRK’s coffers. This has been done before when Israel blew up Syria’s North Korean derived and supplied nuclear facility in 2007.

China seems to be having less impact on young Kim. This should worry them.  China is the economic lifeblood of North Korea. The geopolitical buffer is a strategic must for China. There must be some circles calling for it to be turned into a Chinese protectorate. A Chinese led regime change where Kim Jong Un is granted an exile is a far better outcome than allowing US forces led strike to take it over

Although China may threaten to support Kim if the US preemptively strikes to topple the regime, they have said Kim’s on his own if he does anything stupid.

Kim isn’t stupid. However he is playing a very dangerous game of chicken with a player who realizes that this nuclear arsenal investment has to be stopped. It isn’t a question of if but when.

The idea that conflict can’t or won’t break out on Korean Peninsula is naive. Recall that the Korean War was never officially ended. Gut instincts suggest that if anyone is to take heavy handed action it is the Chinese that must do so. Beijing must also be wary of calling Trump’s bluff.

Abe’s sleepless nights won’t end until something definitive happens to North Korea. It is fraught with many risks but doing nothing now is the riskiest of all strategies over the long run. The UN is unlikely to achieve anything. Besides if they devoted even a slither of the energy and time they do to beat up Israel  one might have confidence in sanctions. Sadly too many vested interests with North Korea

Full interview on Bolt Report on Japan’s regional security conundrum

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The full interview can be found on the August 30 podcast from 21:17-34:30  where I discuss Japan’s Constitution Article 9 and 96 and the changing face of Japan’s Self Defense Force moving from “static deterrence” to “dynamic deterrence”  The wheels to defend herself are already well under way

 

Forget North Korea. Japan is more worried about China & Russia

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What many are probably unaware of is the changing nature of Japan’s threats in the region and how it isn’t just North Korea. Russia and China have aggressively stepped up their activity in aand around Japan’s territorial waters. In June last year I noted the sharp jump in aircraft and naval activity here.

If you refer to the Japanese Self Defence Force (SDF) White Papers it is clear that the current softly softly approach is completely incompatible with its defence needs. Unbeknownst to many Japan converted its SDF from an agency reporting to the PM to a full blown ministry which can apply for its own funding.

Japan is quickly developing its SDF to be ‘dynamic’ as opposed to ‘passive’. It’s security issues demand it. The latest SDF White Paper can be found here.