Category Archives: Foreign Policy

Engulfing Natuna: Indonesia and the 9-Dashed Line

Last month, a small fleet of Chinese fishing vessels escorted by the Chinese Coast Guard began fishing the waters of the Indonesian island of Natuna, making it the latest center of tension in the South China Sea. Natuna and the exclusive economic zone around it sit very close to the infamous 9-dashed line China claims as its maritime boundary in the region, raising the risk of confrontation over where Beijing decides it can send its trawlers. Though Indonesia denies it is a South China Sea claimant, Jakarta is discovering the South China Sea controversy may claim Natuna anyway.

Origins of the Dispute

Though territorial disputes in the South China Sea are not new, the coming into force of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1986 codified an array of customary international laws regarding maritime boundaries. While this solved a great many problems, it created others. One of those was the need for China (and others) to establish their baselines in the South China Sea. China did this by reviving an old map featuring nine dashes in a line extending far to the south of Hainan Island, the now infamous 9-dashed line.

The South China Sea is now one of the world’s most heavily disputed areas. No fewer than six states have overlapping claims on all the resources within exclusive economic zones (EEZ) that extend 200 nautical miles from their UNCLOS-defined baselines. Not only does the 9-dashed line put China at odds with all of these claimant states, the ambiguity of using a dashed line as an international boundary enables Beijing to flexibly interpret its claim, including the EEZ around Natuna.

Claims in the South China Sea that affect NatunaShortly after the Chinese flotilla arrived in mid-December, Indonesia registered a complaint with the Chinese ambassador. The response from Beijing provided no legal argument, saying that their fisherman “have long been active in the area.” This, however, is not the first time Jakarta faced problems with Chinese encroachment. Since October 2014, the administration of Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has sunk well over 500 foreign vessels caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters. Most of those were destroyed in spectacular controlled explosions broadcast on the internet to maximize their deterrent effect.

Though, the vast majority were not seized near Natuna, nor were most of them Chinese. Still, Beijing has been careful to avoid triggering Indonesia’s inherent right to self-defense through the use of tools like the Chinese Maritime Militia, a fleet of civilian craft that operate in a coordinated manner to disrupt and intimidate non-Chinese shipping. The ambiguous status of the Maritime Militia protects it from military responses and instead pits it against coastal law enforcement agencies that are less well-equipped to deal with them. The deployment of the Chinese Coast Guard – rather than the Maritime Militia – from the outset of the Natuna drama suggests Beijing does not believe ambiguity will protect it from Indonesian reprisals.

Jakarta’s Natuna Response

The Indonesian response was substantial despite being slow to gather. After receiving the unsatisfactory reply from Beijing on January 1st the Jokowi administration increased naval patrols in Natuna on January 3rd. Then it dispatched two additional warships followed by four F-16 fighter aircraft to Indonesia’s brand-new military base on the island. By the time of Jokowi’s visit on the 8th, where he delivered a defiant speech in defense of Indonesian sovereignty, Natuna was host to the F-16s and seven warships, more than double its usual complement.

Though China withdrew its flotilla to the boundary of Natuna’s EEZ on January 9th, Indonesia’s Chief Security Minister, Mahfud MD, announced the Navy would sustain increased patrolling for a time. Additionally, in a move that echoes the ambiguity of China’s Maritime Militia, the Indonesian Fisherman Association sent some 500 fishing vessels to Natuna to deter further incursions. Though it is not clear exactly how this will work or how effective this type of response will continue to be in the future, for now, Jakarta has made the point that it does not take incursions into its waters lightly. That it did so without regional partners suggests this will not be the last time China attempts to push the limits.

ASEAN Leadership

Many observers believe a strong Indonesian response will stiffen the resolve of other claimant states to stand up to China. Still, that kind of unity on South China Sea issues has been elusive at best. China adopted a divide and conquer strategy early on, insisting on negotiating disputes bilaterally. Beijing wields its economic power as a foreign policy tool, granting or withholding commercial assistance in accordance with its priorities. As this element of Chinese influence grows, so, too, does its impact and effectiveness on its rivals. The strategy has been successful thus far. ASEAN has been unable to agree on a declaration regarding the South China Sea and still hotly debates a less muscular “code of conduct.”

Indonesia is the largest ASEAN member state in almost every measurable way. While its leadership in the region is real and significant, Natuna is not even a unifying issue within Jokowi’s government. While he and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi focus on the sovereignty of Indonesia’s EEZ, the powerful Defense Minister, Prabowo Subianto, downplays the issue and frames it as an economic one. Prabowo’s rhetoric when he ran for President against Jokowi positioned him as a virulently anti-Chinese candidate. His transformation illustrates the sensitivity of this issue to domestic politics.

Indonesia, like every other South China Sea claimant state, must determine how to defend its sovereignty against an increasingly powerful and assertive China. Bandwagoning with other ASEAN member states is clearly not an option. Balancing behavior and alliances with regional and global powers can help prevent the situation from escalating to armed conflict. Still, both are problematic for the island nation with a defiantly independent tradition. In Natuna, Jakarta elected to employ a show of military force as a deterrent, and it worked…this time. However, Beijing has proven adept at applying all its elements of national power to achieve its goals. As the 9-dashed line creeps forward and the South China Sea dispute threatens to engulf Natuna, Jakarta will find its military power stretched in ways it is not designed to operate.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

The U.S. Assassination of a Key Iranian General Throws Fuel on the Fire

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.


The Big Picture

In response to the latest round of escalation between Washington and Iran, in which protesters in Iraq breached the compound perimeter of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad earlier this week — likely at the behest of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force Cmdr. Qassem Soleimani — the United States has taken the opportunity to eliminate the Iranian military leader and other key architects of Tehran’s strategy in Iraq. But the question is, at what cost? Iran will retaliate in a significant fashion, increasing the risk of further escalation that could lead to a direct military confrontation between the two countries.

See Iran’s Arc of Influence


It’s the spark to ignite a major conflagration: Late on Jan. 2, the Pentagon said it launched an overnight strike in Baghdad killing several officials linked with Iran, including Qassem Soleimani, the powerful commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force. In addition to Soleimani, the head of the Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah militia, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and the deputy head of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Naim Qassem were reportedly killed — although the latter’s death has yet to be confirmed. The Pentagon explicitly noted that among other reasons, the United States conducted the strike in retaliation for the attempt by supporters of Kataib Hezbollah to overrun the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone on Dec. 31, but the decision to target one of Iran’s most important military figures is sure to raise tensions between Iran and the United States in the Middle East to new heights. 

Soleimani’s death, which had followed a stark warning by U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper that the United States was willing to preemptively strike Iranian-backed militias in Iraq to protect U.S. forces, will reverberate throughout the Middle East. As the head of the Quds Force, Soleimani was, more or less, the peer of generals leading the U.S. military’s actions in Afghanistan or Iraq. Naturally, his killing opens the way for a significant escalation, as Iran could well target high-ranking U.S. military personnel in the Middle East in response. Ultimately, Iran will absolutely seek to retaliate against the United States — the only question is at what level, what scale and when. 

Here’s how Soleimani’s death might affect a number of areas around the Middle East — and the wider world:

Iraq

The risk that Iraqi militias backed by Iran would attack U.S. and Western forces, assets and, potentially, commercial interests was already high, but it’s just increased precipitously. Although Iranian-backed militias led by leaders like al-Muhandis were not popular among many Iraqis, the U.S. move to stoke a conflict with Iran on Iraqi soil will inject serious diplomatic tension into Baghdad’s relationship with Washington and fuel nascent efforts in the Iraqi parliament to reevaluate Iraq’s security cooperation with the United States. It will also complicate the Iraqi security force’s efforts to continue to work closely with Washington against the Islamic State.

Israel

Israel reportedly had come close to assassinating Soleimani a handful of times in recent years. And based on the missile threat that it perceives from the Quds Force and the Iraqi militias led by al-Muhandis and others, Israel will no doubt support this decision by Washington. But potential Hezbollah retaliation against U.S. interests in Lebanon could also turn into attacks on Israel, given the widespread perception in Lebanon — and throughout the region — that U.S. and Israeli interests against Iran and its allies are one and the same. In the worst-case scenario, that could touch off a separate fight between Israel and Iran.

Lebanon

Iran’s strong presence in Lebanon through Hezbollah makes the possibility of retaliation against U.S. targets there a distinct possibility. Hezbollah exercises influence in large swaths of Lebanon, including parts of Beirut, and has the capability to launch attacks against U.S. targets in the country. That risk will be even more pronounced if the death of Qassem, Hezbollah’s second in command, is confirmed.

Saudi Arabia and Gulf Oil Producers

It has been nearly four months since Iran attacked the Abqaiq and Khurais oil-processing facilities, taking half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production down. If the United States and Iran continue their escalation with direct strikes on one another, Iran could certainly retaliate against countries like Saudi Arabia, one of the closest U.S. allies in the region, and their economic interests. Each of the Gulf Cooperation Council states — particularly Bahrain and Qatar — hosts a significant U.S. military presence that Iran could target.

Persian Gulf

In addition to direct attacks on GCC member states, Iran could launch more attacks against the U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf. For most of U.S. President Donald Trump’s term in office, Iran has hesitated to use its naval assets to harass U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman despite its aggressive strategy to counter U.S. sanctions pressure. That, however, could change: As it is, the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group reported last month that Iranian naval ships had harassed it as it was leaving its deployment in the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea.

Syria

Soleimani’s death is a blow, but likely not a crippling one, to Iran’s ability to conduct its extensive operations in Syria. The United States does not have a significant presence in Syria compared to what it has in Iraq and the Persian Gulf, but the remaining U.S. forces in Syria are near Iranian-allied militia forces, meaning they could become a target. 

Afghanistan

Iran could decide to strike the United States in Afghanistan, given the target-rich environment of U.S. soldiers and military assets in the country, as well as Iran’s history of support for the Taliban. Iran is better positioned to strike elsewhere — since it does not directly control or direct the Taliban as it does other proxy forces — but the possibility of retaliation in the war-torn country cannot be ruled out.

Yemen

Iran could push the Houthi rebels in Yemen to launch retaliatory attacks against U.S. allies as well, even though Iran does not directly control that group, either. The Houthis maintain a robust arsenal of drones as well as ballistic and cruise missiles, which they have used to carry out attacks in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and surrounding waters such as the Bab el-Mandeb strait. Potential targets include, but are not limited to, airports, critical infrastructure, energy infrastructure, military targets and vessels transiting the Red Sea.

Beyond the Middle East

The threat of retaliation is not limited to the Middle East, given Iran’s history of conducting attacks against targets ranging from Latin America to Eastern Europe and South Asia, among others. Iran has also been linked to numerous plots in Western countries, including in Belgium, Denmark, France, the United States and the United Kingdom in recent years.


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The Apathetic American: Dismissing the Status Quo

Every December since the Affiliate Network was established in 2014, we seem to reflect on what a tumultuous year the world had. This year is no different. It seems so many things we took for granted since the fall of the Soviet Union are unravelling in some astonishing ways. Much of this can be attributed to the long-term effects of a rising China, climate change, or the Global War on Terror but there is a new and alarming contributor to the apparent dysfunction in the international system: American apathy toward the status quo.

Fluctuations

We began the year with a shutdown of the United States Government. Though it was the third such shutdown since the inauguration of Donald Trump, this was the most prolonged and severe in U.S. history. In Shutdown Security: Grinding the Axe, Lino Miani explains how the shutdown put tremendous strain on American relationships overseas and damaged U.S. security worldwide.

Latin America illustrates the wild fluctuations that happened this year. In January, Ligia Lee wrote convincingly that left-wing politics were on the decline in the hemisphere. In End of the Left: Latin America’s Right-Wing Swing, she describes a swing towards right-wing governments and voters’ frustration with leftist politicians. Just 11 months later, Christina Kirchner is back in Argentina, and conservative governments in Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador are under intense pressure that some may not survive.

American Apathy

Though U.S. apathy towards Latin America may arguably be the trigger for recent upheavals there, the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, feel the direct effects of American ambivalence. Nowhere did this hit harder than in Syria, where the surprise decision by President Trump to withdraw U.S. troops had a global impact on U.S. credibility. Many of our contributors wrote about conditions that, one way or another, can be seen as a growing recognition that governments everywhere desire to chart a more independent course than they previously thought necessary or possible.

Dr. Chris Golightly, a long-time energy industry consultant, wrote about Europe’s growing need to secure its natural gas supply from Russian domination. As he wrote in Mind the Gap: Geo-Strategy of Natural Gas, this will be much harder due to Russia’s growing influence in transit countries Syria, Turkey, and Ukraine. He also describes this influence in detail in his update to Green is the New Black: Making a Gas Cartel.

Dino Mora wrote an entire series of articles on the influence of Russia and its allies in Latin America. In his articles Around the Caribbean, and Measure Up Costa Rica, he tells the tale of Russian foreign policy backed up by Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua using Soviet-style active measures to erode U.S. influence in the region. In Venezuela’s Bad Neighborhood, Dino describes just how critical these measures are to the vital interests of those nations.

Perhaps most striking is the case of Japan. President Trump’s ambiguous and thus far mostly fruitless diplomacy with North Korea has come at a cost for the security of South Korea. At the same time, U.S. trade pressure and antipathy toward its long-standing security responsibilities in the region has allowed latent hostilities to rise to the fore between America’s allies. As Lino Miani wrote in Islands of Conflict, Russia and China are likely exploiting this rift. In Isolating Japan, he argues the U.S. decision to quit Syria further impacts Japanese calculations about its security relationships with the U.S. and its allies. In American Basing in Asia: Taking the Cow by the Horns, Gary Sampson proposes a new footprint that accounts for these realities.

Electioneering

Though elections are always important events, the Affiliate Network covered several this year that were particularly noteworthy. In Battle for the Throne: Indonesia Votes, Dr. Viana Geary explains why the Islamic “Green Factor” encouraged by the nomination of an influential Islamic politician, served as kingmaker in Jokowi’s re-election. The resultant shift in Jokowi’s priorities reflects the needs of millennials and women that together made up the majority of voters this year. In El Salvador’s Combative New President, Lino Miani describes the hopes and challenges facing the charismatic Nayib Bukele as he makes it clear he has no interest in maintaining the status quo of El Salvador’s political past amid a worsening relationship with Washington.

At a time when the world is fixated on tales of Russian interference in the U.S. election and the possibility of a conspiracy to do so again in 2020, it is easy to view democracy itself as under threat. After months of protest, three million of Hong Kong’s four million voters took to the streets to select the leadership for the city’s 18 districts. In How the Pro-Democracy Election Victory Could Calm Hong Kong, we explain how the results left the pro-establishment government in control of just a single district. After the election, the world is waiting with bated breath to see whether this victory will moderate the protests. In Sandra Torres: Under the Electoral Weather, Lino Miani describes how corruption threatens Guatemala’s electoral system. Lastly, in Overcoming Democracy: Italy’s Online Experiment, Jared Wilhelm warns us about the dangers of direct elections over the web.

New Relationships

Apart from the expert analysis, however, these last four articles are noteworthy because they were all shared with or from our new partner, Stratfor. As the world’s leading geopolitical intelligence platform, Stratfor’s partnership with the Affiliate Network has brought our work to new and broader audiences and complemented our native content in ways that make the Affiliate Network an essential inclusion in the daily reading of decision-makers everywhere. We’re thrilled to be recognized as a partner of such a respected organization and consider it a testament to the quality of work from our contributors.

As we look back on 2019 and prepare for what will surely be yet another tumultuous year ahead, we are very grateful to our readers and contributors. This year, however, we feel especially fortunate to have partners to thank as well. With that, we wish you and yours a hugely successful 2020 and hope that the Affiliate Network will be part of it.


Fred Hendricks, Editor, The Affiliate NetworkThe views expressed in this article are those of their respective authors and do not reflect the views of any government or private institution.

Fred Hendricks is the editor of the Affiliate Network and a Surface Warfare Officer in the US Navy. He has eight years experience working in counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden, counter-narcotics in the Caribbean, and with NATO and allied partners in the Mediterranean.