Today, the Philippine Navy was able to resupply the marines based on Second Thomas Shoal. Last week, a resupply mission to the island was forced to turn back after considerable harassment by Chinese coast guard vessels. Tuesday’s attempt was successful, however, there was a degree of harassment by the Chinese. It was not as direct as last week when water cannons were used on the resupply vessels. The renewed cat and mouse game around the shoal raised fears of future standoffs down the line. China and the Philippines have competing claims in the South China Sea despite the fact Beijing claims the majority of the sea as its own. The stand off last week, coupled with today’s successful resupply, combine to present a clear message from Beijing to Manila; The South China Sea is Chinese territory, if not in name, then in being. Philippine maritime activity there is dependent upon Beijing’s wishes.
Condemnation for last week’s harassment came from the United States and European Union. U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said that an armed attack on Philippine boats in the South China Sea would invoke Washington’s defense commitment under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines. The EU urged China and the Philippines to resolve their disputes through peaceful means.
Today, Belarusian authorities cleared the largest migrant camps along its border with Poland. The intentions of the Minsk government are unclear at present, but the move is seen as a positive step by some international observers, perhaps even marking the start of a de-escalation in the migrant crisis that has blossomed into a East-West confrontation. In another possible sign of de-escalation, hundreds of Iraqis who spent weeks camped at the border are in the process of flying home. The rest of the migrants at the border will be moved to a processing center. Whether the move is permanent or not remains to be seen. For the short term though, the migrants will have shelter from the freezing temperatures and less-than-hospitable conditions on the border. As the migrant camps were being cleared, Polish security forces repelled a coordinated effort by a group of Middle Eastern migrants to cross the border. This attempt was smaller than the one made two days ago at the Kuznica border crossing point. Nine Polish police officers were injured in the melee that developed then.
Earlier this week diplomatic activity aimed at ending the crisis was ramped up. German Chancellor Angela Merkel held two telephone conversations with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. French President Emmanuel Macron also discussed the crisis with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. It’s unclear if these talks are responsible for Thursday’s dismantling of the camps, but today Putin called on Lukashenko to begin a dialogue with the European leaders. Germany and the European Union have also rejected a Belarusian request to take in thousands of migrants and asylum seekers now in Belarus.
Russian President Vladimir Putin found himself walking back comments by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that included a threat to cut off gas supplies to European nations. Putin surmised that his Belarusian counterpart made the comments in a fit of anger. The European Union accuses Belarus of provoking the migrant crisis on its western border to undermine EU security. The Union is considering new sanctions against Belarus and its government. In a television interview given earlier today on Rossiya television, Putin said that discussions with Lukashenko had not mentioned the threat to cut off Europe’s gas supply. “Of course, in theory, Lukashenko as president of a transit country could order our supplies to be cut to Europe. But this would mean a breach of our gas transit contract and I hope this will not happen,” Putin said. The absence of a firm assurance that gas supplies will not be affected obviously indicates some latitude for Lukashenko to go farther with his threat as the crisis continues. The Belarusian leader’s threat has sparked worry around Europe as natural gas shortages and rising prices affect available supplies and the market.
The migrant crisis on the Belarusian-Polish frontier continues to worsen with every passing hour. There have been hundreds of attempts by migrants to breach the border and all of them have been stopped by Polish troops. Some 15,000 Polish soldiers now deployed along the border. Their mission is simply to prevent any migrants from crossing illegally from Belarus into Poland. On the international front, the European Union and United States are accusing Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko of manufacturing this migrant crisis in response to sanctions laid upon Belarus by the EU. The Minsk government denies this is the case. Meanwhile, on Europe’s eastern frontier the crisis threatens to develop into the latest flashpoint between East and West.
Almost all the migrants now on the border are from the Middle East. Belarus has been allowing them to fly in for weeks and is now attempting to funnel them through to Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, all member-states of both the EU and NATO. The EU and Poland has set aside its differences for the moment and is focused on bringing an end to the crisis. The EU is expected to bring a new round of sanctions into play against Belarus sometime in the coming days. Poland, for its part, has publicly laid blame for the crisis on Russia, relegating the Belarusian role in this ongoing drama to that of a vassal state.
The potential for escalation is certainly present. Adding to the tension is the fact that Russia is again massing troops and military equipment on its border with Ukraine.
Concerns of a new refugee crisis are rising in Europe after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. Six years after the 2015 migrant crisis that came dangerously close to splintering the EU, the continent is faced with the prospect of another one not far off. European leaders are keen to avoid a repeat of 2015, although the stars appear to be lining up in a similar fashion now. The Syrian Civil War was the impetus for the large influx of asylum-seeking refugees to Europe. With Taliban control of Afghanistan now complete and atrocities already beginning there, anxiety is growing on the continent. The message European governments want to convey to fleeing Afghans who have Europe in mind is: if you are determined to leave, go to neighboring countries, don’t attempt to come here. This applies to all Afghans except for those who helped Western military forces during the 20-year war.
Earlier this week, as Afghanistan descended into deeper chaos, European Union officials told interior ministers that the key to avoiding a new refugee crisis is to prevent a humanitarian disaster from occurring. Without a large amount of humanitarian aid, Afghans will start moving in large numbers. Meanwhile, Austria has suggested setting up deportation centers in the nations neighboring Afghanistan to speed up the deportation process for those who are denied asylum.
In Southern Europe, Greece has made it very clear it does not want to see a repeat of the 2015 crisis that saw a number of its islands in the Aegean Sea become the entry point to Europe for hundreds of thousands of Syrian and other Arab refugees. Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi has said Greece won’t accept being the “gateway for irregular flows into the EU,” and that the Greek government considers Turkey to be a safe place for Afghans. Ankara has differing thoughts on that, not surprisingly. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned in a speech Thursday that “Turkey has no duty, responsibility or obligation to be Europe’s refugee warehouse.”
As European Union nations bicker and Brussels attempts to organize itself, Great Britain has declared it will welcome 5,000 Afghan refugees by the end of the year and has plans to resettle 20,000 more over the next three years.