Sri Lanka is girding for potential shortages of food products and fuel in the near future. Citizens have been lining up for cooking gas, automobile fuel since Friday. As the government attempts to stave off complete economic meltdown, the nation has defaulted on debt for the first time in its history. So, much to the chagrin of Sri Lanka’s leaders, the economic outlook remains bleak as the government lifts the state of emergency decree that has been in place since early May. The state of emergency went into effect as a result of violent street protests and riots in Colombo and across the country in late April and early May. The root cause of the unrest was spiraling inflation and other factors of the nation’s economic crisis.
India and Japan will provide emergency relief to the island-nation in a bid to stave off a complete collapse. The first ship laden with food and other material will depart from India on Wednesday. Japan will provide an emergency grant for $3 million worth of medicine and food. These moves also have geopolitical purpose as both nations would prefer to keep Chinese involvement in the Sri Lankan crisis at bay. Tokyo and New Delhi are wary about offering an opening for China to expand its presence and influence in the Indian Ocean region.
With US President Joe Biden heading to Asia today, the focus of the US government will pivot away from the war in Ukraine and Europe for the first time in months. Even though the pivot will be temporary, Biden’s trip to Japan and then South Korea will reveal a glimpse or two at future US economic and security policies and postures in the Western Pacific. As expected, even though Biden’s trip will take him to Japan and South Korea, two staunch US allies, this visit is all about North Korea and China.
Tensions in the region are evident at first glance. China is contending with issues close to home stemming from the latest COVID-19 outbreak on the mainland, redoubled efforts to replenish strategic oil reserves and of course, Taiwan. Then there is North Korea, dealing with its first official outbreak of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, as well as preparing for either a ballistic missile or underground nuclear test in the near future. Washington’s preoccupation with Ukraine and Russia has delayed the Biden administration’s intentions to refocus on Asia this year.
The Ukraine crisis and subsequent war is raising concerns about the ability of the United States to handle simultaneous crises in different parts of the world diplomatically and politically. China’s designs on Taiwan are at the core of these concerns. One of Biden’s primary goals for this trip will be to address the worries of allies and non-aligned regions in the region and demonstrate how solid US security commitments in the region are. The president also needs to address why his administration has failed to apply an economic component to US Indo-Pacific strategy. During this trip, Biden is expected to present the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework as an answer to the economic questions.
Slipping away from Ukraine for a brief spell, North Korea’s latest missile test is raising concerns across the world. The US, South Korea and Japan have all condemned what looks to be the test of an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) by the North on Thursday, its first ICBM test since 2017. The test was far from unexpected. US officials have been warning for weeks now that an ICBM test was probable in the ‘near future.’ The missile flew for 71 minutes, traveled a distance of 671 miles, and reached a maximum altitude of 3,852 miles. It landed 100 miles off the coast of Japan, prompting Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to label the launch as ‘reckless’ and ‘unacceptable.’
This missile, officially named the Hwasong-17, has upgraded capabilities over its predecessor, with the ability to reach the United States and carry multiple-independently targeted re-entry vehicles. In other words, more than a single warhead. It is more of a threat to the United States than Western Pacific nations, yet this has not deterred South Korea from staging its own demonstration in response to Pyongyang’s launch, firing its own ballistic and cruise missiles and dropping guided bombs, in order to “demonstrate the determination and capability to immediately respond and punish” North Korea.
Amid growing pressure both at home and abroad, the Biden administration will announce a ban on Russian oil imports to the United States this morning. The move is intended to hold Russia accountable for its invasion of Ukraine, which is now entering its thirteenth day. The ban is not expected to have too great of an impact on US oil imports, certainly not to the level a ban by European nations would bring about.
The humanitarian corridor and attached ceasefire in Ukraine’s Sumy region appears to be holding at present. Evacuations of civilians from Sumy to Poltava have started and remain underway. In a related development, the Ukrainian government has also confirmed that evacuations from Irpin, a town located near Kiev are now underway. Efforts to evacuate civilians from Mariupol are meeting with considerably less success.
Japan has announced a new batch of sanctions aimed at Russia and Belarus. The assets of nearly three dozen Russian and Belarusian officials, business executives with close connections to the governments and oligarchs have been frozen. Exports of Russia-bound oil refinery equipment and Belarus-bound general-purpose items that could be used by its military will also be banned.
While much of the world’s attention is focused on Ukraine and Russia, North Korea has conducted a string of missile tests over the last month. The most recent test firing came yesterday, and was the nation’s most powerful test since 2017. It was an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) that reached an altitude of 2,000 kilometers before descending into the Sea of Japan. The tests this month have defied the UN ban on ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests by North Korea.
Sunday’s test was condemned by Japan, South Korea and the United States. Aside from words of condemnation and warning, however, there has been no concrete response from regional powers or from the US. South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in did remark that this round of missile tests is similar to 2017 when the North conducted nuclear tests and fired powerful missiles, some of which flew over Japan.
As for the reason behind these tests, there are a variety of opinions floating around. Some colleagues believe the tests are a signal to the world. A demonstration of North Korea’s military prowess to create a position of strength from which Pyongyang can use to its advantage. Then there is the timing of these tests. The Winter Olympics are set to start soon in Beijing and the South Korean presidential election is scheduled for March. Kim Jong Un might want to influence both, or at the very least remind the world North Korea is still there.
While I believe the reasons above are viable theories, conditions in North Korea are likely the main driving force behind the January surge of missile tests. The economy continues to struggle from a combination of factors; economic sanctions, COVID-19, and thirty-plus years of gross mismanagement on every level. These have combined to place the government in a precarious position. Kim Jong Un might be gambling that the US and other world powers realize the North is growing desperate and needs relief before the situation comes to a head. North Korea has employed this strategy before without success. Why Kim Jong Un would opt to try again is unclear.