Since yesterday, a number of media outlets have reported that the Trump Administration is strongly considering a plan to close the southern border with Mexico as a measure to prevent members of the Central American migrant caravan from crossing into the United States. According to the New York Times, the plan calls for broad executive action on the part of the president aimed at fortifying the southern US border with additional troops, and denying asylum requests by Central Americans for a period of time. Whether or not this plan becomes reality remains to be seen. If it does, a number of challenges will likely be filed against it in US courts. The saga of the migrant caravan comes with less than two weeks remaining until the US midterm elections. This has been a raucous political season in the United States, and both Democrats and Republicans are both using the caravan to gain leverage over the other.
Unfortunately for Democrats, the president is fully within his rights to shut the southern border if he deems it necessary to protect the United States from an external threat and the migrant caravan falls into this category. The organizers and leaders of the caravan have plainly stated their intentions to force entry onto US soil. In essence, they’ve declared war on the US and turned their humanitarian pilgrimage into an invasion force. President Trump cannot, and will not allow them to enter the United States.
Border security is central to national sovereignty. The ability of a nation-state to remain both politically stable, and internationally reliable, is jeopardized the moment its borders become porous. The European Migrant Crisis produced numerous examples of this, having eroded the sovereignty of numerous European nation-states, and of the European Union as well. The after-effects of that crisis continue to be felt across the continent.
The US doesn’t appear likely to make the same mistakes that Brussels, and Berlin have. The Trump administration has made border security a priority since the beginning. Progress on building a wall on the southern border has been hampered by opposition efforts, and congressional infighting, however. It is not secret that President Trump has been frustrated by his inability to firmly gain control of the border. This caravan, and the crisis surrounding it, presents him with the opportunity to turn reverse these fortunes. The United States needs a secure southern border as much as it does strong leadership in Washington.
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.
As US containment efforts press ahead at full speed, the Iranian government continues to counter with thinly veiled threats against US interests in the region. First it was the Strait of Hormuz, followed by promises of an upsurge of assistance to the Syrian government in its campaign against western-backed rebel militias. Now, Iran is placing ballistic missiles in areas of Iraq controlled by its Shiite proxies, and is developing its ability to manufacture more missiles there. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is well established in these areas, and has overseen the program since it began roughly three months ago. Iranian officials have stated off the record that the purpose of the missile placement is to serve as a hedge against any attacks against their country. Nominally, control of the missiles will be placed in the hands of the IRGC, with the Shiite proxy groups having limited involvement. In the event of heightened tension, or a crisis, however, all of this could change if Iran does start to assist the Shiite proxy groups with constructing their own missiles.
Iran has provided ballistic missiles for the Houthi rebels, their proxy group in Yemen. The Houthis periodically launch missiles at targets in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has been targeted most frequently, though the Houthi attacks against the Saudi capital have caused only minimal damage, and disruption. By putting a similar capability in the hands of Shiite proxies inside of Iraq, the Iranians are extending the range of its shorter-range ballistic missiles to include Israel.
Along with acting as a deterrent, these missiles could also be used in attacks aimed at destabilizing the region, or damaging US actions aimed at curtailing Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The aggressive missile policy runs the risk of pushing tensions between Washington and Tehran even higher. August has seen a sharp rise in the language, and actions of the actors involved in the Iran drama. Unfortunately, based on the way things look now on the first day of September, there does not appear to be any signs of de-escalation in the near future.
In an effort to help Ukrainian forces even the odds on the battlefield, the Trump administration has approved a plan to send Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. The move follows months of debate within the Defense Department and White House on whether or not to sell lethal arms to Kiev. The Javelin ATGMs will be included in a package of arms that will be provided to Ukraine for the first time. Up until now US assistance has been confined to training and support equipment.
The Javelin is a highly effective missile that has been proven in combat. It is known to be effective against most tanks and armored vehicles in the Russian arsenal. For the duration of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russian-provided –and in many cases crewed– armor has often tipped the scales in the direction of the separatists. Kiev had requested Javelin shipments from the Obama administration since the beginning of the conflict, though the previous administration refused for fear of escalating the conflict. The current administration’s decision to provide the Javelins now is going to give Ukraine a weapon that will help even the odds against Russian armor on the battlefield.
Predictably, Russia has not reacted positively to the US move. Not long after the US State Department announced the intentions to provide lethal arms to Ukraine, Moscow warned the move will cause new bloodshed in the fighting, and possible escalation. “The United States has crossed a line by announcing its intention to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Saturday. “U.S. weapons are capable of leading to new casualties in our neighboring country, and we cannot remain indifferent to that.”
US-Russian relations have grown chillier in recent months. The Trump administration is obviously adopting a tougher stance towards Russia and the Javelins are a clear sign of this. As 2017 is coming to an end, events in Ukraine, and US-Russia relations are again taking priority in the minds of policymakers and analysts in Moscow, Washington DC, and Europe.
Pressure is building on Saudi Arabia to lift its blockade of Yemeni ports and allow food, water, and other essential materials into the country. Saudi Arabia blockaded Yemen’s ports after Houthi rebels fired a SCUD missile last month. Relief organizations have been warning that the situation in Yemen is growing dire. The nation’s economy and infrastructure have been shattered by years of strife, and civil war. Millions of civilians are at risk of starvation.
Now the United States is joining the chorus of nation-states and organizations around the world that are calling on Saudi Arabia to open access in Yemen to prevent yet another humanitarian crisis in the Middle East. Yesterday, President Trump issued a harsh criticism of the Saudi actions and announced that his administration would be calling upon Riyadh to end its blockade. Today, administration officials and advisors have gone to work on the matter in a series of phone calls and meetings with Saudi officials.
Saudi Arabia is a close US ally, and the relationship between the Trump administration and Riyadh has been particularly warm. The White House is hoping to use its clout to ameliorate the deteriorating humanitarian situation. Of course, the request is not being made simply because it is the right thing to do. There are potential benefits for the Trump administration’s foreign policy embedded in it as well. The US announcement that it recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and will be moving its embassy in Israel there from Tel Aviv is a potential power keg. There is concern about the how Muslims across the region will react to the move. The US is hoping its position on the Saudi blockade, and improving the situation in Yemen will cool Muslim reactions to the Jerusalem move.
The Saudis might not be ready to relinquish the blockade so easily, though. The death of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh by Houthis on 4 December has altered the dynamics of the Yemeni civil war. Wednesday’s Saudi airstrikes against targets in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, launched in retaliation for Saleh’s death, indicate escalation could be on the horizon. It would be in Saudi Arabia’s best interests to halt the blockade at least temporarily, however, given the events of the past few days in Yemen, there’s no guarantee that Riyadh’s final decision will be influenced even by the prodding of its closest ally.