The USS Harry S Truman, and her escort ships entered the Norwegian Sea on Friday, marking the first time a US aircraft carrier has operated above the Arctic Circle in nearly 30 years. The last time was in September, 1991 a few months before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. USS America moved north of the Circle while taking part in the NATO exercise Northern Star. Coincidentally, the reason for Truman’s venture north is also to participate in a NATO exercise. Trident Juncture 18 is scheduled to officially begin on 25 October.
In the last decade of the Cold War, US aircraft carriers operated north of the Arctic Circle in the Norwegian Sea on a fairly regular basis. If hostilities had ever broken out between NATO and the Warsaw Pact back then, the Norwegian Sea would’ve been a hotly contested piece of water. The US Navy’s Maritime Strategy had called for multiple carrier battlegroups to operate in the Norwegian Sea, in close proximity to the Soviet mainland. The concept at the time was for the carriers to eventually bring the war to Soviet soil with heavy airstrikes against military targets on the Kola Peninsula. Back then, whenever a US carrier moved north of the Arctic Circle ostensibly to take part in an exercise, it was also there to send a message to Moscow.
The same could very well hold true today. Truman’s journey north serves as a reminder of the US Navy’s global reach, and striking power at a time when tensions between Russia and the West remain high.
Wednesday’s Brexit summit in Brussels ended with no tangible results offered by either the European Union or Great Britain. In fact, there was more than a hint of disappointment in the chamber when British Prime Minister Theresa May arrived with no new proposals. The only thing May offered were hints that Britain might extend the post-Brexit transition phase beyond the proposed 21 months in order to hammer out the details of a future trade relationship between the UK and EU that is amicable to both parties. In other words, London, and Brussels will require more time to make the impending divorce as friendly as possible.
Expectations had been high in the days leading up to the summit. Some observers even framed it as a ‘make or break’ moment for a Brexit deal. Instead, negotiations will continue on with no clear timeline for when it will be time to draft a deal. The transition phase is set to run from March, 2019 until December, 2020. During this period, the UK will continue to honor the rules of the single market, and customs union. It could be extended through the end of 2021 if necessary.
May is likely to deal with some backlash from her party if the transition phase is extended. To many Tory MPs, an extension would be akin to allowing Great Britain to remain in limbo until 2022. In exchange for an extension, Britain would receive nothing in return from the EU. The longer England remains tied to the European Union, the bleaker May’s political fortunes will become.
Germany is no longer a refuge from the storm of voter dissatisfaction sweeping across Europe. Sunday’s regional elections in Bavaria have proven that beyond the shadow of a doubt. Yesterday, the Christian Social Union (CSU) received 36.8% of the vote, and lost its absolute majority in the Bavarian state parliament. In the last elections, held in 2013, the CSU received roughly 46% of the vote. Yesterday’s results mark the worst performance for the party since 1950. CSU’s decades-long domination of Bavarian politics is apparently over. Bavarian voters rejected the party and moved their support to the left and right. The Green Party captured 17% giving them second place. The right wing anti-immigration party AfD won 10.3% of the vote, giving them a visible presence in Bavaria, an area hard hit by the migrant crisis. AfD’s position is particularly remarkable given that the party did not even participate in Bavaria’s last regional election.
Sunday’s election results will have an adverse effect for Angela Merkel’s ‘grand coalition’ and German national politics as well. The civil, but tense relations, and policy disagreements between the member parties are already coming to light less than a day after the election. The German Social Democrats (SPD) is viewing the results as a wake-up call amid fresh concerns about the survivability of the coalition’s alliance at the national level. SPD’s head has all but called for the resignation of Horst Seehofer, CSU’s leader. The party wants the way the coalition works to be improved and believes the best way to achieve that goal is through personnel changes. SPD also suffered major losses on Sunday with its support in Bavaria cut in half.
Looking at the big picture, Merkel’s coalition has been dealt a massive blow. Her allies have been greatly humbled and their power sapped. SPD’s role in the coalition is up in the air right now, and if the coming regional elections in Hesse go badly for the party, as well as for CSU, it could bring the coalition crashing down. With it will come Angela Merkel’s chancellorship, and her long-running position as the leader of Europe’s most powerful nation-state.
Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi’s disappearance on 2 October resembles the plot line of a spy novel. Kashoggi, a frequent critic of the Saudi government, as well as the de facto head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Saudi Arabian branch, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey to obtain papers needed to get married. His fiancée waited outside, and when he did not leave by the time the consulate closed, she reported him missing. The Saudis claim that Kashoggi did leave the consulate through a back entrance. The Turkish government, however, argued that he was still inside, later amending their position to the belief that Kashoggi was tortured and later killed inside the building. The Turks later claimed that a 15-man team was brought in from Saudi Arabia to handle the operation.
Predictably, Kashoggi’s disappearance has bloomed into a major international incident. The Saudis and Turks are sticking to their stories. Investigations are underway, and supposedly both countries are cooperating with a joint investigation. The global outcry from media, and human rights organizations is reaching a fevered pitch. The future of Turkish-Saudi relations, already strained before this incident took place, could very well rest on the fate of Kashoggi.
This episode has also placed the United States in an awkward position. Both Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are American allies. The Turks have been sharing the alleged video evidence in their possession with US officials, and this morning Andrew Brunson, the American pastor who was arrested on treason and sedition charges in October of 2016, was released from Turkish custody. This latest move is most likely a calculated one made by the Turkish government to bring US support to its position, and version of events. Saudi Arabia is another close US ally in the region. Washington has been pressing Riyadh for answers both publicly, and in private. The Trump administration has not ruled out economic sanctions against the Saudis if they are found to be responsible for Kashoggi’s kidnapping, though punitive measures are unlikely.
In order to firmly grasp, and understand the current situation in the South China Sea (SCS), it needs to be viewed from the two very divergent perspectives that dominate the thinking behind the geopolitical decisions being made by the major players in the area: Western (US and its allies) and Chinese.
From the Western point of view, China’s claims of sovereignty in the SCS, and construction of ports, airfields, and other military installations in the Paracel and Spratly Islands are nothing short of aggressive, willful violations of international law. China’s insists that, under international law, foreign militaries are not able to conduct intelligence gathering activities inside of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea. The United States holds the position that under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) claimant nations have the right to freedom of navigation through EEZs and cannot be prevented. China’s position can potentially hold international commerce hostage if Beijing should so decide. As a result, it should not be allowed to stand.
The People’s Republic of China views its SCS actions as an essential to the establishment of the First island chain, the keystone of China’s Island Chain Strategy. The First island chain refers to the first line of archipelagos located east of the Chinese mainland. China views this area as one which must be secured to prevent US military forces from actively operating there in a time of hostilities. It would seal off the East China Sea, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea from the naval and air forces of the US and its allies. China is well on its way towards achieving the First island chain policy. Every move it makes in the SCS is critical to reaching that goal by the 2020-2022 timeframe.
A military clash between these two contradictory positions could very well be imminent. The Trump administration’s stance on China’s militarization of the SCS continues to evolve, and Beijing’s SCS plans appear to be moving forward regardless of Washington’s protests, and Freedom of Navigation exercises in the area. Despite the lack of coverage, and discussion in the media, the South China Sea situation will demand close attention in the coming weeks. Further incidents between US and Chinese ships like the one last week could provide the catalyst for a major US-China war in the Western Pacific.