Monday, 12 December 2011

More confrontation and collaboration in the South China Sea

A South Korean coastguard was stabbed to death by Chinese fisherman on 11th December, even as Beijing began joint patrols along the Mekong River with Burma, Laos and Thailand.

The South Korean coastguard was killed when his vessel sought to detain the Chinese fishermen, who were fishing illegally near South Korea's territorial waters. It comes after South Korea announced a crackdown: 430 Chinese vessels have been seized for illegal fishing this year, up from 370 last year. A number of clashes have occurred but this is the first time that a member of the coastguard has been killed while detaining fishermen.

Seoul has lodged a formal protest with Beijing. The incident is likely to stir tensions between the two neighbours, and be seen as further evidence of China's lack of regard for maritime boundaries in the South China Sea. Similar incidents in 2010 provoked a serious diplomatic crisis between Japan and China.

Elsewhere, however, China is demonstrating a willingness to cooperate with South-East Asian states. Following the death of 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong river in October (believed to be by drug smugglers), Chinese forces have begun joint patrols along the Mekong, in conjunction with their counterparts from Thailand, Burma and Laos.

The extent of their jurisdiction and their authority is so far unclear. Most regional states are wary of Chinese intentions and would be unwilling to allow Chinese police to kill or arrest their citizens on local soil. Regardless of the specifics, the patrol marks a major step forward for China's security forces in operating overseas.

Sources: BBC, Wall Street Journal

Monday, 5 December 2011

India and China cancel border talks after Dalai Lama row

China and India have cancelled a round of talks to settle their border dispute after India allowed the Dalai Lama to participate in a global Buddhist conference.

Beijing insisted that New Delhi block the exiled Tibetan leader's speech at the conference; it refused to do so and cancelled this week's dialogue instead. Both Indian and Chinese officials did not address the issue publicly, stating simply that the date of the next round of talks was still being decided; however, the Indian ambassador to Beijing was reportedly brought back to New Delhi for consultations.

China regularly criticises governments which host the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet's Buddhists and a man who the Communist Party considers to be a dangerous troublemaker and separatist. He has lived in India since fleeing Tibet in 1959, although the Indian government is wary of allowing him to use the country as a base for political opposition to China.

The cancellation of talks comes at a time when the two sides are making substantial progress towards settling their disputed border, a major source of tension as both emerge on to the world stage. They have been developing “Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on Border Affairs” to resolve disputes which occur along the boundary line.

Tensions persist along the border, however. China is apparently angry at Indian plans to develop a Mountain Strike Corps of 100,000 soldiers to be deployed along the border; India, for its part, is concerned about the development of Chinese infrastructure near the boundary line, which could be used for military purposes.

Despite the postponement of talks both sides are keen to insist that cooperation will continue. India's Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna said on 30th November that defence talks, scheduled for December, would go ahead.

Sources: The Hindu, Voice of America

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Nigeria, Cameroon request international funding to finalise border demarcation

The governments of Cameroon and Nigeria have requested international assistance to fund the final demarcation of their border.

The border demarcation has been overseen by the Cameroon-Nigeria Mixed Commission since 2002 after a ruling by the International Court of Justice which ended years of sporadic clashes over the poorly marked border.

The ICJ ruling gave ownership of the Bakassi Peninsula, the focal point of much of the tension and a potentially rich source of oil, from Nigeria to Cameroon. The ruling was based on myriad colonial-era documents, including correspondence between British and German colonists and treaties between the imperial powers and local rulers. Nigeria protested the ruling but eventually began a two-year phased withdrawal in 2006.

The two sides made their request for further international funding at a meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon. Ban called the meeting, with Cameroon's Deputy Justice Minister Maurice Kamto and Nigeria's Justice Minister Mohammed Bello Adoke, to push the sides towards a final demarcation of the border by 2012, the tenth anniversary of the ICJ ruling.

Considerable progress has been since 2002. Authority in Bakassi has been transferred from Nigeria to Cameroon; the maritime boundary has been agreed upon; and around 1700km of land border have been demarcated.

The two sides are now looking for the final funding for the border demarcation, and have also pledged to begin winding up the activities of the Mixed Commission.

Sources: AFP, UN News Center

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Sudan refuses border demarcation as risk of confrontation grows

The Sudanese government has turned down an African Union proposal for a new round of negotiations with South Sudan, as military tensions along their disputed border rise sharply.

On 15th November, a South Sudanese minister complained that Khartoum has suspended the talks, which were being held under the auspices of the African Union High Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP), chaired by former South African leader Thabo Mbeki. AUHIP talks have been struggling on for two years, but have failed to make progress on key issues such as border demarcation and oil sharing.

The suspension of talks comes at a critical time in relations between Sudan and South Sudan, which formally seceded in July. Rebels linked to Juba's ruling Sudan Liberation People's Movement, operating in border states within Sudanese territory, have intensified their battle against the Sudanese military.

According to local NGOs, Khartoum has responded with a major bombing campaign against border regions. There have been persistent accusations that it has launched airstrikes against refugee camps, including one across the border with South Sudan. Oxfam has pulled out its staff in response to the violence. The Sudanese military has also allegedly boosted its military presence near the boundary, with refurbished airfields and greater deployments of armoured forces.

The military build-up has provoked fears of a new war. South Sudanese president Salva Kiir has warned that Khartoum is seeking to invade South Sudan and steal its oilfields. Sudan's leader Omar al-Bashir, for his part, has said that he is ready for conflict if Juba provokes it.

Although a full-blown military conflict remains unlikely, the harsh rhetoric makes it more difficult for the two sides to demarcate the border, agree on oil-sharing, and prevent cross-border cattle raids which have killed hundreds. The AUHIP does not seem to have the political clout needed to calm tensions and push both sides into a compromise.

Sources: Sudan Tribune, AFP

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Congolese soldiers detained at Tanzanian port

The Tanzanian army has detained more than 20 soldiers from the Democratic Republic of Congo after they crossed the border into Tanzania.

According to the Tanzanian military, the soldiers, travelling in a boat, landed at the port of Kigoma on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, which borders both countries. They claimed that they were pursuing rebels who had fled into Tanzania to seek medical treatment.

The soldiers were heavily armed with machine guns and rocket launchers, provoking anger among the Tanzanian soldiers who detained them. One of the Tanzanian officers said that “we might as well regard this as an invasion”. The Congolese soldiers have been detained and may be charged with illegally entering the country.

The incident is unlikely to spiral into a diplomatic row but it has refocused attention on the porous and often unstable border region around Tanzania, DRC and Burundi. The confused fighting in eastern DRC between militia groups, criminals and loosely organised government forces has caused thousands of refugees to flee into neighbouring states, and has also pushed armed groups across the borders.

Last year Tanzanian MPs called on President Jakaya Kikwete to set up a special police zone around Kigoma after a spike in violent crime there, attributed to refugees and criminals moving in from neighbouring states. Recently a gang of robbers, believed to be from the DRC, hijacked a bus in Kigoma and rampaged through the area, killing and wounding several people before disappearing.

Tanzania may be frustrated with the influx of refugees and rebels from the DRC but has little ability to do anything about it. While the situation in the eastern DRC remains so chaotic, and the Kinshasa government so weak, the only remedy is to try and tighten controls along the border. This is so porous and poorly marked, however, that it will remain a Herculean task for the Tanzanian government.

Sources: BBC, The Citizen

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Syria cracks down on porous Lebanese border

In an effort to clamp down on safe havens and sources of weapons for the opposition, Syria's government has begun mining its porous border with Lebanon.

Lebanese witnesses living along the border have reported that the Syrian army has been planting the mines in the Wadi Khaled region. The boundary in the area is demarcated only by piles of earth, and many locals have circulated freely to visit relatives and businesses on either side of the border. Crossing the border is now extremely hazardous, and several people have been injured in recent days trying to move between Syria and Lebanon.

This is exactly what the Syrian government wants. As the uprising against the regime of President Bashar Assad intensifies, Lebanon has become both a safe haven for dissidents and a source of weapons and money. Syrian forces have already staged a number of small cross-border raids onto Lebanese soil to pursue suspects.

Analysts say that weapons smuggling into Syria has boomed in recent months as the once-peaceful revolt begins to resemble an armed insurgency. Although some of the weapons are destined for renegade soldiers, many are believed to have been purchased by both pro- and anti-government citizens seeking to defend themselves.

The border situation has provoked anger among some Lebanese MPs, who accuse Syria of violating the country's sovereignty (a sensitive issue given the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon until 2005). The divided government in Beirut, however, remains largely pro-Syrian and is coordinating closely with Damascus on cracking down on smugglers. The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has boosted its forces along the eastern border with Syria.

Securing the border will be a difficult task. A retired Lebanese army general told AFP that there are over 50 illegal border crossings and shutting them all down will be extremely difficult. This is particularly true since the border is not demarcated for long stretches, and many villages straddle the two countries.

Sources; Daily Star, AFP

Monday, 24 October 2011

Kurdish and Iraqi authorities in border flag dispute

Iraq's central government and the authorities of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) are locked in a dispute over which flags are to fly at the border between their two jurisdictions.

KRG officials have insisted that they will not remove Kurdish flags from government buildings on the boundary line, defying instructions issued by Iraqi premier Nouri Al-Maliki in early October. An official from the peshmerga, the Kurdish security foreces, told Reuters that the Kurds “won't implement Maliki's order definitively unless the Kurdish people themselves lower the flag.”

The order from Maliki provoked strong reactions in the Kurdish region, particularly in border cities such as Mundhiriya and Khanaqin, where ethnic loyalties are most contested. Thousands took to the streets to protest the premier's instruction and subsequent statements by his office that raising the Kurdish flag in border areas was a “constitutional violation.”

The incident comes at a time of heightened tension between the Kurdish government in Erbil and Baghdad. The KRG is seeking to incorporate Khanaqin, as well as other border regions, into their jurisdiction, something which Baghdad refuses. The two sides are also still at loggerheads over the fate of the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, control of nearby oilfields, and an oil law which would determine the KRG's right to export oil.

Wider issues are also adding to the strains in the relationship. Last week's announcement that all US military forces would leave Iraq by the end of the year has refocused attention on the often tense relationship between Iraqi security forces and the peshmerga.

The US conducted joint patrols with Iraqi Arab and Kurdish military units in the border zones, helping to build trust and prevent stand-offs between the two forces. With their withdrawal, the future of the joint patrols is in doubt. Kurdish-only patrols in Arab-populated border areas will create tensions with the local community, and vice versa.

Another complicating factor is Turkey's cross-border operation against Kurdish militants, launched on 20th October. Although the KRG has sided with Turkey in its fight, the sustained presence of Turkish troops in Kurdistan is likely to cause a greater sense of national identity among Kurds. Combined with the flag issue, this is likely to cause greater tensions in the border regions between Kurds and Arabs.


Sources: AFP, Reuters

Monday, 17 October 2011

Kenyan forces cross into Somalia to hunt kidnappers

In a significant escalation, Kenyan army units have crossed into Somalia to hunt for the kidnappers of two aid workers seized from a refugee camp on the border.

The two Medecins Sans Frontieres workers were kidnapped on 13th October by gunman and taken back into Somalia. The Kenyan government has repeatedly tried to seal off the border, which is regularly crossed by thousands of refugees fleeing Somalia's fighting and the country's drought.

Militants from Al-Shabab, which controls much of central and southern Somalia, are believed to have infiltrated the flow of refugees and have also fought along the border to recapture territory held by pro-government militias.

Previously the Kenyan military has focused on sealing the border, only launching brief raids into border regions of Somalia, but the intervention which began on 17th October appears to be on a much bigger scale. Hundreds of troops backed by tanks, artillery and helicopters have moved into Somalia. According to local residents, Al-Shabab units in the area have been forcibly recruiting locals to boost their numbers in a demonstration that they are preparing to fight.

The kidnapping of the aid workers was the trigger for the incursion, but for some time the Kenyan authorities have been concerned by the porous border situation and the ease with which Al-Shabab has managed to cross into Kenya, recruiting among refugees or kidnapping Westerners. The deployment of so much heavy weaponry indicates that freeing the hostages will come second to a punitive raid on Al-Shabab forces.

Kenyan officials have been blunt. Kenya's Internal Security Minister George Saitoti said that “Our territorial integrity is threatened with serious security threats of terrorism, we cannot allow this to happen at all.”

Saitoti also said that the government is sealing the border with Somalia, although this would be almost impossible to do effectively. For its part, Somalia's weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has denied that Kenyan forces have entered Somalia, stressing that although they welcomed Kenyan support they did not require military assistance.

Officials in Kenya and elsewhere would disagree. Although TFG forces backed by African Union peacekeepers have driven Al-Shabab out of most of Mogadishu in recent weeks, the militants still control vast swathes of the country and are more than a match for the TFG's underfunded and poorly-trained forces.

The extent and duration of the Kenyan intervention remains to be seen, but it demonstrates that the border situation continues to provoke regional instability.

Sources: BBC, AFP, AllAfrica

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Indonesian ministers summoned over border dispute with Malaysia

The Indonesian House of Representatives has said that it will summon key officials from the government of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to explain what progress is being made on a border dispute with Malaysia, amid angry protests.

The two states are at loggerheads over both their land and sea borders. Indonesian lawmakers have claimed that the Malaysian government has stepped up naval patrols on the border and sought to effectively annex nearly a kilometre of sea.

Their main area of dispute at sea is the Ambalat zone of the continental shelf between them, which is believed to contain huge undersea energy resources. Malaysia claimed the area in a map which it issued in 1979, but Indonesia rejects the claim. The dispute has not stopped each side from granting oil and gas contracts in the area, but tensions periodically spike, often including confrontations between the two navies.

The land border is the main subject of contention at present. In early October, Indonesia accused Malaysia of damaging several border markers in the West Kalimantan region, leaving parts of the border unclear.

Although the two sides have agreed to send a joint surveying team to the area and settle it as a technical issue, some Indonesian media outlets and officials responded by whipping up nationalist sentiments and declaring that over 1000 hectares of land had been taken by Malaysia.

On 13th October an angry crowd, organised by a group calling itself Forum Betawi Rempug gathered outside the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta and hurled missiles at the building, damaging a security post and forcing police to use tear gas.

The strong feelings on both sides will give added impetus to a plan by the two governments to set up Local Border Committees at each boundary crossing point. The idea was proposed by the head of the Malaysian customs department Datuk Seri Mohamed Khalid Yusuf at a bilateral cooperation meeting between the two sides.

Notwithstanding the willingness of some politicians to score political points from the dispute, the issue looks to be settled at a technical level; neither side has an interest in aggravating tensions.

Sources: Jakarta Post, Borneo Post

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait meeting over maritime boundary dispute

Amid a sudden deterioration in their bilateral relationship, Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed to hold a meeting with Kuwait to settle their joint maritime border.

On 11th October, Kuwaiti foreign minister Sheikh Mohammad Al-Sabah announced that a tripartite meeting had been agreed in principle between the three sides. He said that it was “basically a technical issue but it will need a political decision from Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait”. No date was set for the meeting.

Kuwait and Iran have been in discussions for years over demarcating their joint sea border, in which Saudi Arabia is also involved, with little progress. Regional political tensions and uncertainties over their respective borders with Iraq have caused major delays.

Determining who has the right to the region's continental shelf is of importance largely because of the presence of the Dorra gasfield in the disputed zone. The field is estimated to contain up to 200 bcm of natural gas.

At present, all three states share the Dorra field. Kuwait has been actively working on developing its share of the field, and in April a senior executive from Kuwait Petroleum Corp said that a plan to start drilling by 2013 was still on schedule. Kuwait has, however, been cautious in proceeding due to the lack of agreement over ownership.

The plan to resolve the outstanding technical issues of the joint maritime border comes as relations between Tehran and Riyadh hit a new low. News of an alleged plot by Iranian agents to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington has prompted fears of a new phase in the 'cold war' between the two regional powers.

Although unlikely to directly affect the border negotiations, a crisis in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia would make it more difficult for them to agree on sharing the resources of the Dorra field.

Sources; Al Arabiya, AFP

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Turkmenistan plans naval patrols on disputed Caspian border


Turkmenistan, the Caspian's most cautious and least well-defended state, has announced plans to boost its navy and patrol its maritime borders as questions loom over the future of the Caspian sea.


Speaking at a naval shipyard where two new missile patrol boats have recently been delivered, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov said that Turkmenistan “needs ships to patrol its maritime borders, to maintain their security and counter negative phenomena and modern challenges”, while stressing that Turkmenistan's naval doctrine was purely defensive in nature.

Although Turkmenistan's naval capabilities are weak and its political will doubtful, Berdimuhamedov's speech was a clear statement that the country is keen to defend its waters amid growing tension over the division of the Caspian.

The EU's decision to open negotiations with Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan on a Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) last month, to bring Central Asian gas west to Europe, has been strongly opposed by Russia and Iran. The Caspian's two strongest states argue that a TCP would cause serious environmental damage and cannot be agreed without the consent of all five littoral countries.

Their real objection, however, is that a TCP would permit an avenue for Central Asian gas to reach Europe without crossing their territory, weakening their regional influence.

In addition, the status of Caspian borders remains contested while the littoral states debate how large a share each should take. This has not stopped exploration of oil and gas deposits, but it has created zones of uncertainty. A recent Wikileaks cable revealed that in 2009, Iran moved an oil rig into disputed waters between it and Azerbaijan, prompting fears of conflict in Baku. Turkmenistan also fears Iranian intimidation.

The country's naval forces are ill-equipped to patrol its borders or defend its territory. It has a handful of rusting Soviet patrol boats operating from dilapidated facilities. The government has been busy purchasing more, however, including some from Ukraine and others from Russia and Turkey. The new missile patrol boats inspected by Berdimuhamedov were built by a joint Russian-Turkmen venture, with most of the work done by Russian firms.

Although the government wants the new navy to be completed by 2015, along with port facilities and a naval academy, Turkmenistan will continue to lag behind its neighbours. Its stated intention to patrol its borders, however, suggests that it is taking its position in the Caspian very seriously.

Sources; Turkmenistan.ru, Eurasianet

Monday, 10 October 2011

India and China agree to new border mechanism

Asia's two most powerful states have agreed to establish a new institutionalised mechanism to manage their lengthy land border, amid growing disputes over boundaries at sea.

On 6th October India's Defence Minister A.K. Antony told journalists that New Delhi and Beijing were working on setting up a new process involving diplomatic and military agencies from both sides, and that the mechanism would be up and running within around three months.

A new system to resolve border disputes is sorely needed. India regularly accuses Chinese forces of entering its territory, which China denies. The two sides fought a brief but bloody border war in the Himalayas in 1962, and the border between them is still hotly disputed. China claims most of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh in northeastern India, arguing that the McMahon Line which Tibet concluded with the British Empire in 1914 – and which now serves as the de facto border between India and China - was invalid.

The situation along the line of control in India's northeast remains tense. New Delhi has recently announced plans to boost the number of troops in the region by up to 50,000, as well as building airstrips near the border. Beijing has warned that a military build-up would be destabilising for the region, but has been accused of increasing its own presence there. In September, India accused Chinese air and ground forces of violating its territory.

The new proposed mechanism would reinforce the existing arrangements, in which ad hoc meetings of military officials, diplomats or expert groups are organised to discuss any pressing issues. The new arrangement, however, will bring all these groups together in a regular process. The inclusion of diplomatic policymakers is vital for keeping the situation under control and informing the central governments of both states.

It is not clear exactly when the mechanism will come into force but it seems that both sides acknowledge the need to reduce tensions there. Smoothing relations over the 3,500 km land border would be a positive note in the Sino-Indian relationship, currently undergoing tensions over disputed maritime boundaries in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

India is working closely with southeast Asian states as a counterweight to China, which has alarmed smaller countries with its aggressive claims to sovereignty over the sea and its associated resource bonanza. Meanwhile India has watched with concern as China builds up its economic and military presence in a 'string of pearls' around the Indian Ocean, including Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Pakistan.

Sources: The Diplomat, The Hindu

Monday, 3 October 2011

Monastery dispute stalls Azerbaijan-Georgia border demarcation


Talks on demarcating the border between Azerbaijan and Georgia have stalled again, according to officials at the Georgian foreign ministry. The main issue to be settled is the fate of a 6th century monastery complex which straddles the mutual border.

The demarcation process has been drawn out for years, despite the cordial relations between Baku and Tbilisi and their joint interest in facilitating greater cross-border ties. The old Soviet borders are currently used as a placeholder, whilst the Alazan river also forms a natural boundary along some of the 480km of their boundary.

According to Georgian officials, 160km still remains to be demarcated. The biggest issue is the fate of the David Gareja Monastery, known as the Keshish Dag in Azerbaijan, which sprawls across a mountain slope dividing the two countries – both sides claim that the bulk of the complex lies within their territory. The monastery was founded in the 6th century and is Georgian Orthodox, giving it great significance for modern Georgia.

For Azerbaijan the monastery is significant for two reasons. Firstly it is claimed to be the work of 'Caucasian Albanians', believed to be the ancient inhabitants of Azerbaijan and regularly used as a historical weapon in Azerbaijan's battle with Armenia over who has the 'right' to the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Secondly and more prosaically, the site is viewed as a strategic height which Azerbaijan is reluctant to give away.

Although officials have downplayed the long-running dispute, public opinion is vociferously opposed to any compromise. The rest of the border can probably be delimited without much controversy, but it remains to be seen whether a compromise can be struck over the fate of the monastery.

The lack of a demarcated border has not been much of an impediment to relations between Azerbaijan and Georgia, which are close and based on extensive energy and infrastructure projects. Given nationalist sensibilities in both countries, however, sacrificing anything believed to be an integral part of national history would be a major headache for the authorities. In the South Caucasus 'compromise' is often equated with 'surrender'.

It seems, therefore, that the commission working on border demarcation is simply seeking to put off the issue of the monastery complex for as long as possible. It has not stopped cooperation, and the ambivalence of the status quo seems to be a situation which everyone can live with, for now.

Sources: News.az, Institute for War and Peace Reporting

Friday, 30 September 2011

Turkish government pushes for cross-border operation

Amid a sharp rise in the number of attacks by Kurdish militants, the Turkish government is urging parliament to renew a mandate empowering it to pursue the rebels into their sanctuaries in northern Iraq.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) submitted the motion on 27th September, and it is expected to be discussed as a top priority as soon as the legislature reconvenes on 1st October. The AKP's domination of parliament, along with widespread opposition support for a tough stance, makes it a near-certainty that the motion will pass.

The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has launched a wave of attacks in Turkey's predominantly-Kurdish southeast since August. Dozens of soldiers and police have been killed, as well as civilians, and the PKK has also recently taken to kidnapping teachers. On 20th September, a car bomb in the capital Ankara was claimed by a PKK offshoot.

A wave of air and artillery strikes has been carried out in northern Iraq since August, but has failed to stop the upsurge in violence. The government now appears determined to launch a ground offensive across the border, as it has done sporadically for the last four years.

The motion now before parliament would renew the government's existing mandate to conduct cross-border operations, which was granted in 2007 and renewed each year. The current mandate expires on 17th October, suggesting that the AKP is planning a lengthy offensive. Large-scale troop movements in the area also indicate that the operation will be substantial.

Cross-border operations would provoke new tensions with the autonomous government of Kurdish northern Iraq (the KRG). The authorities in Erbil have repeatedly protested against Turkish and Iranian raids on Kurdish rebels within Iraq, accusing them of killing civilians. Although the KRG has affirmed its desire to root out militants using its territory as a safe haven, longstanding ties between them make it difficult for Kurdish authorities to dislodge the PKK and its offshoots.

A sustained Turkish ground offensive would ring alarm bells in both Erbil and Baghdad, which is already under pressure from various sides and concerned that, with the US presence rapidly fading, the Kurdish north is slipping away into an independent state fighting its own wars. It would also raise concerns that the borders between Iran, Iraq and Turkey are increasingly permeable and irrelevant.

Sources; Today's Zaman, Hurriyet

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Venezuela criticies Guyana over new border line

A new row has erupted between Guyana and Venezuela over a planned extension to the former's maritime boundaries, which Venezuela says was decided without consultation.

Earlier in September Guyana applied to the UN for permission to extend its continental shelf by 150 miles, which would expand the border beyond the standard 200 miles of the Exclusive Economic Zone. Venezuela has complained that it was not informed by Guyana, with which it has a long-running border dispute stretching back into the nineteenth century. The new maritime border, Venezuela says, would interfere with its own offshore zone.

Guyana has dismissed the allegations, saying that it informed Caracas of the requested changes as long ago as 2009. The document submitted to the UN, however, contains the assertion that “there are no disputes in the region relevant to this Submission of data and information relating to the outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles”, despite the unsettled nature of the border.

Venezuela has reacted coolly. Although it has described the Guyanese claim as an “irregular situation” and a source of disagreement, the usually-bombastic President Hugo Chavez has told his diplomats to “walk on eggshells” regarding the dispute. The UN has stated that it will begin studying the Guyanese claim in April, a process which could take years.

The argument is particularly acute at the moment due to the large oil and gas reserves which are believed to lie beneath the sea. In early September Tullow struck a potentially huge oilfield off the coast of nearby French Guiana, sparking speculation that the whole region was rich in reserves.

The maritime boundary is unsettled in large part because the land boundary between the two is still contested. In the nineteenth century, the border was effectively drawn up by the British, which became a bone of contention with Venezuela. US-backed arbitration in 1899 set a line largely in Britain's favour, but the claim was revived in the 1960s.

Since becoming independent in 1966, Guyana has administered the territory, but Venezuela insists that the boundary is a colonial hangover which is null and void, and refers to the disputed area as a “zone of reclamation”.

The argument is unlikely to escalate into anything serious, with Venezuela aiming at a cordial solution, but until the outlines of a settlement are reached it introduces a further degree of uncertainty into regional oil and gas exploration.

Sources: El Universal, Latin American Herald Tribune

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Renewed fighting at Kosovo border leads talks to collapse


New violence on the contested border between Kosovo and Serbia has left many wounded and led to the cancellation of the latest round of talks aimed at settling the dispute.


The latest fighting flared on 27th September, near a border crossing which has been the focal point for issues of control and sovereignty. At least four peacekeepers from NATO's KFOR were wounded, as were at least 16 Serbs.

Accounts of the fighting are disputed. NATO, which moved its peacekeepers to the border crossing recently in a bid to defuse tensions, said that its forces were attacked by a crowd who threw pipe bombs, wounding four, which led the peacekeepers to respond with tear gas and rubber bullets. Serb sources, however, say that NATO used live rounds which wounded at least six protestors.

The violence occurred after NATO dismantled roadblocks set up by the Serbs near the disputed checkpoint. The barricades are intended to prevent ethnic-Albanian Kosovan police from taking control of the border post and to guard a new path into Serbia constructed by the Serbs which avoids the NATO checkpoint.

Both sides condemned the violence, with Serbia laying the blame on NATO and Kosovo attributing it to “criminal structures” in the ethnically-Serb north of Kosovo. A new round of dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, mediated by the EU, was due to take place later on 27th September, but was called off by Serbia.

The talks were intended to settle 'technical' issues such as customs, property rights and managing the flow of people and goods. Serbia has said that it will not resume them until it has assessed what happened at the border crossing.

Sources: BBC, Reuters, AP

South Sudan to close borders with north as fighting flares

The South Sudanese government has announced that the border with Sudan will be closed from December, in retaliation for an allegedly illegal blockade imposed by the north. The move comes amid renewed fighting with pro-southern rebels in Blue Nile state.

Atem Garang, a senior figure in the South Sudanese government, announced the border closure on 24th September, following months of accusations that Khartoum had sealed off border crossings. The breakdown in trade has contributed to high prices and food shortages which have affected thousands.

The closure suggests that Juba's patience with Khartoum is running out. Last week, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir called for greater cooperation with Sudan on key issues including border demarcation.

It also takes place amid a sharp deterioration in the security situation along their 1250 mile border. A major offensive by Sudanese forces against rebels in the border state of Blue Nile has displaced tens of thousands, according to aid agencies. The military operation is aimed at the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement North (SPLM-N), which is politically and ethnically linked to South Sudan and which has been fighting northern forces for several months.

Since the independence of South Sudan in July, Khartoum has been seeking to reassert control over border regions which have a heavy SPLM-N presence. The Sudanese military is now using aerial bombardments and ground assaults against the region, leading to widespread accusations of civilian casualties. A UN-backed call for demilitarisation, which both sides agreed to, seems moribund.

Officials in the SPLM-N have called on the US to impose a no-fly zone along the border region, warning that the Khartoum government's offensive threatened the independence of South Sudan. US officials have rejected the request.

The fighting, as well as Sudan's efforts to block access to Blue Nile and South Kordofan, another rebel province, is also hampering cross-border trade and communication. Any further intensification of the conflict would make it even more difficult to freely cross the border, and lead to a serious deterioration in relations between Khartoum and Juba.

Sources: Sudan Tribune, Guardian, AFP

Monday, 26 September 2011

China and India in tussle over Vietnamese oilfield

 The exploration of oilfields off Vietnam's coast by India's state energy firm has provoked a stern response by China, opening yet another front in the contest over maritime boundaries in the South China Sea.

India's ONGC is working with PetroVietnam on exploring a block close to the disputed Vietnam-China maritime border. At the time the contract was won, back in 2006, China protested that the area was within its waters. Now, ONGC's return to the area after a pause for technical reasons has resulted in a number of outspoken warnings by China.

The state-run Global Times, a Chinese newspaper, published an editorial accusing India of a “serious political provocation” which could “push China to the limit”. The foreign ministry in Beijing has also said that India's actions were “illegal and invalid”. New Delhi has brushed off the warnings, saying that its actions are in line with international law and that the block is within Vietnamese waters.

The spat is another escalation in tensions between China and its neighbours in the South China Sea, of which it claims a significant area. Vietnam has been a particular focus of Beijing's ire, with a summer marked by tit-for-tat naval drills and mutual recriminations.

They appeared to make up in early September, with an agreement to compromise through friendly consultations, but the rapprochement seems to have fallen apart just as quickly. On 13th September, Hanoi also announced that it would start conducting joint patrols with Indonesia along their mutual border, in a bid to shore up stability in the area.

On 23rd September, the Philippines announced that their efforts to forge a common position among South China Sea states had been successful, with delegates from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreeing that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea should be used to settle regional territorial disputes.

Growing concern at China's claims and gunboat diplomacy is creating an opportunity for India in the region, as the ONGC episode shows. New Delhi is becoming increasingly confident in its dealings with China, and has the potential to begin acting as a counterweight to Beijing for smaller states in the area.

Sources: AFP, Wall Street Journal, Times of India, Global Times

Friday, 23 September 2011

Cyprus pledges to share oil resources in bid to cool tensions

In an attempt to defuse an increasingly tense stand-off in the eastern Mediterranean, Cypriot President Demetris Christofias has promised to share the proceeds of any oil found offshore with the island's Turkish Cypriot community.

Christofias insisted that a peace treaty between the EU-member Greek south and the largely unrecognised Turkish north of Cyprus had to be found, but that “even before a settlement we shall find a way to use revenues to the benefit of both communities”. He stated that the discovery of offshore oil and gas would be another incentive for the two sides to find a peaceful solution to their long-running dispute.

The Cypriot move appears to be a limited concession to the Turkish Cypriots, who this week signed a deal with their patron in Turkey to jointly explore the sea off the island's northern coastline. The agreement was a response to Cyprus's own decision to start drilling offshore, a move which Ankara denounced as a provocation which infringed the rights of the Turkish Cypriots. Turkey has also threatened to blacklist any energy firms which cooperate with the Greek Cypriots.

On 23rd September Turkey dispatched a seismic exploration ship to the waters off northern Cyprus. Three warships were dispatched to the area on 21st September and Turkish officials have warned that they will escort exploration vessels as required, although there is no suggestion that the Cypriots would seek a military confrontation. Nonetheless Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz has said he does not expect the region to heat up.

Working with the Greek Cypriots, US firm Noble Energy began drilling to the south of Cyprus earlier this week. They are expecting to find large gas deposits near the maritime border with Israel. Noble has recently discovered a series of major gas fields in Israeli waters, and Cyprus has expressed interest in energy cooperation with Israel, including the development of undersea pipelines. A separate deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations has contributed to the tensions in the area.

It is unclear whether Christofias's suggestion of sharing revenues is entirely realistic: it may simply be an attempt to reduce the antagonistic atmosphere in the eastern Mediterranean, but it seems unlikely that Turkey will back down on its exploration with the Turkish Cypriots. Joint exploration and drilling would help to calm Turkey and encourage progress on a peace deal, but whether the political will exists to do so is another matter.

Sources; Hürriyet, Reuters, Today's Zaman

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Iran, Russia oppose cross-border Caspian pipeline

Iran and Russia have both announced their opposition to a pipeline across the Caspian Sea, which was backed by the EU last week as a means to bring Caspian gas to Europe.

A trans-Caspian pipeline, running west from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan along the Caspian seabed, has been under discussion for years, but has never got off the ground due to a lack of commercial imperative and political will. An ongoing dispute between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan over their maritime border, and associated gas and oil fields, has also stymied progress.

On 13th September, however, the EU's Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger announced that the EU was would start negotiating a legally binding treaty between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to build a trans-Caspian pipeline. Europe, said Oettinger, “is now speaking with one voice” – previous efforts to coordinate the 'Southern Corridor' to bring Caspian gas to Europe have been hamstrung by competing European agendas and approaches. The new mandate will empower it to arrange the legal and commercial requirements of a trans-Caspian system.

The pipeline would enable Turkmen gas to reach Europe without crossing Russian or Iranian soil. The EU is keen to reduce its energy dependence on Russia and avoid politically problematic Iran, whilst Turkmenistan is looking to diversify its energy export routes.

Tehran and Moscow have reacted angrily to the EU's intervention. Iran has stated that it opposes the project on ecological and legal grounds. Russia expressed its regret, and warned that the project did not account for “the actually existing international legal and geopolitical situation in the Caspian Basin today”.

The reference to geopolitics is significant, as it indicates the main reason for Russian and Iranian opposition (notwithstanding ecological protestations) – that a Caspian pipeline would enable Central Asian gas to avoid their territory, reducing their political and commercial leverage.

The other objection is that the legal status of the Caspian Sea, including the littoral states' maritime boundaries, is still unclear. Although most of the states have simply got on with developing gas and oil fields in their presumed sectors, the exact boundaries and the right of states to undertake major projects – like a subsea pipeline – is still legally unclear.

It is likely that Russia and Iran will apply a range of legal and political pressures to stop the pipeline from going ahead. The EU's internal problems and lack of focus towards the Caspian region may make it an unreliable patron for Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, and unable to push the pipeline through against Russian and Iranian opposition.

Sources: Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Reuters

Monday, 19 September 2011

Abyei remains contested, says South Sudan


A senior official from South Sudan has said that the oil-rich border region of Abyei will remain disputed, until the governments of Sudan and South Sudan agree on a deal which will protect the rights of its residents.

Speaking on 17th September, Luka Biong Deng, a co-chair of the Abyei Joint Oversight Committee (set up to monitor the implementation of agreements there), said that Abyei would retain a special status until a legal and binding decision is made.

Biong said that the current agreement governing the administration of Abyei, which was signed in June, is not a permanent mandate. Abyei is nominally controlled by both states under UN supervision, since a referendum to decide its fate – alongside the vote which led to South Sudan's independence – was not held due to disputes between Juba and Khartoum.

Biong asserted, however, that the international community continues to work under the impression that Abyei belongs to north Sudan, and is therefore unable to provide the necessary support and assistance to it. At present, both Sudan and South Sudan have forces stationed in Abyei; there is also a UN peacekeeping force, composed of Ethiopian troops. Both sides are due to withdraw their forces by the end of September.

Troop withdrawal, said Biong, is a key first step towards a plebiscite. With the UN in charge, both governments will continue to administer it "until the final status of the area can be determined in a manner that respects the will of the residents of Abyei".

Biong's statement is intended to emphasise that the current arrangement, with both states jointly administering the region, is not permanent. It reflects a confidence that Abyei's residents, which have tended to support the south and have a range of grievances against the government in Khartoum, will agree to join South Sudan in any referendum and thereby handing control of the region's oil wealth to Juba.

Any flare-up in fighting would provide a good excuse for the north's government to maintain forces in the region and put off a referendum. Ensuring a smooth, demilitarised transition is therefore critical for the South Sudanese government.

Sources: Sudan Tribune, BBC

Friday, 16 September 2011

Turkey, Israel, and Greece weigh in on Cyprus drilling plans

The rapidly shifting politics of the eastern Mediterranean have become even more complex in recent days, as Turkey has warned Cyprus to avoid exploratory drilling off the coast - work which would be undertaken with Israel, fast becoming Turkey’s regional rival.

Greek-speaking Cyprus is pledging to press ahead with plans to begin exploring its offshore resources, despite a lack of agreement on the exact maritime boundary with Turkish-speaking Northern Cyprus, which is only recognised by Turkey. EU member Cyprus has turned to Israel for support: the two countries demarcated their maritime boundary in December 2010, and both have contracted Noble Energy to explore the offshore deposits along their mutual border.

Turkey has responded angrily, warning against “adventurist policies” by Cyprus and threatening to agree a maritime border with Turkish Cyprus, which would enable them to pursue oil and gas exploration but would also stoke tensions with other regional players. Speaking on 8th September, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Turkey, "as a guarantor of the Turkish republic of north Cyprus, has taken steps in the area, and it will be decisive and holding fast to the right to monitor international waters in the east Mediterranean”.
Greece has also weighed in to back Cyprus – it is also likely to have been the driving force behind an EU statement on 9th September that warned Turkey to refrain from threats.
Turkey has no relations with Cyprus, and once-warm ties with Israel have plummeted to a new low, with Ankara repeatedly threatening to deploy warships into the eastern Mediterranean. Along with an increasingly tense dispute between Israel and Lebanon over their maritime boundary (and the gas fields in the border area), the situation in the eastern Mediterranean is becoming increasingly fraught and tangled. Indeed, rumours have circled that Cyprus is planning to keep its military on alert during offshore drilling.
The next steps are not clear. Turkey’s recent bullish behaviour is mainly directed at Israel, but the connection between Cyprus and Israel over developing gas fields is widening the dispute significantly. Ankara’s sudden insistence on joint exploration with Turkish Cyprus seems partly a rhetorical move: to date, Turkey has shown little passion for prospecting in the area.

Given Ankara’s deteriorating relationship with Tel Aviv, however, and Erdoğan’s fiery assertiveness in the foreign arena, it is plausible that Turkey will actively work to bar Cyprus from drilling in the Mediterranean and start working with the Turkish Cypriots to start exploring energy resources offshore. This could set the stage for an increasingly tense and complex regional situation.

Sources: Reuters, Hürriyet, Bloomberg

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Serbia warns Kosovo on disputed border crossings

Serbia has cautioned that attempts by Kosovo to take control of disputed border outposts in northern Kosovo could spark renewed tensions between the two neighbours.

Serbia's President Boris Tadic made the warning on 13th September, calling Kosovo's plan to deploy police and customs officials at the outposts on the Serbian border “the height of irresponsibility and dangerous behaviour” and demanding dialogue with international mediators.

The plan, announced last week by Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, has prompted serious discontent in northern Kosovo, which is mainly populated by ethnic Serbs, unlike the Albanian-majority southern areas. Serb community leaders in northern Kosovo have threatened to block the roads if the government in Pristina attempts to deploy police and border units. The region exists in administrative limbo, within Kosovo's international borders but without much trace of the Albanian-dominated state apparatus.

The rise in tensions follows a summer of border violence, when a previous attempt by the Kosovan government to take control of the outposts was met with violent protests from ethnic Serbs who reject Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia. One ethnic Albanian policeman was killed in the rioting, which prompted NATO's peacekeepers to take control of the checkpoints, despite Serb roadblocks.

The most recent war of words comes despite a trade agreement between Belgrade and Pristina, signed on 2nd September, under which the two sides agreed to lift tit-for-tat import embargoes. Thaci's decision to try and regain control of the border, as part of a wider drive to strengthen control over the Serbian north of Kosovo, suggests that the EU-brokered trade deal has led to overconfidence in Pristina.

Redeployment of police units to the border could jeopardise the fragile progress made so far on bilateral trade ties. It would also risk damaging both countries' painstaking path towards EU membership. Brussels has made it clear that a stable and peaceful relationship between Pristina and Belgrade is a prerequisite for either of them to move closer towards full EU membership.

Serbian officials have demanded that international mediators intervene to prevent Kosovo's latest moves. Until the Kosovan government renounces its right to police the border, however, it is unlikely to back down, and a new border confrontation seems increasingly likely.

Sources: Reuters, Voice of America, Bloomberg

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Japan criticises Russian moves around disputed Kuril Islands

The Japanese government has slammed a visit by a high-ranking Russian official to the disputed Kuril Islands, calling it “unacceptable”, as Russia acknowledged that its air force conducted drills close to Japanese airspace.


The 11th September visit of Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev is the latest in a string of visits by high-ranking officials to the Kuril Islands, including a trip by President Dmitry Medvedev in November, after which the Russian leader pledged to bolster the defences of the disputed territories.

The islands lie to the north of the Japanese island of Hokkaido and to the south of Russia's Sakhalin peninsula. They were administered by Japan until the end of the Second World War, when Russian forces overran them. The islands have been a point of contention between Moscow and Kyoto ever since, particularly given growing expectations about the quantity of oil and gas in the surrounding sea.

Russia has engaged in regular sabre-rattling over the islands, insisting that they are an indivisible part of Russia and promising to deploy advanced weapon systems to defend them.

Despite the recent spike in tensions, however, both Japanese and Russian officials have expressed their desire to settle the dispute amicably. On 9th September Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his Japanese counterpart Koichiro Gemba that Moscow is happy to discuss a peace treaty “in a calm atmosphere”, although he reiterated that Russia ruled out any negotiations of its sovereignty over the Kurils.

Japan's new prime minister Yosihiko Noda, in a telephone conversation with Medvedev, also stated his willingness to sign a peace treaty and settle the issue. He may try and seek a resolution on the Kurils as a way of making his mark in office, although the range of other challenges facing him may make the dispute with Russia somewhat less of a priority.

In the meantime, Russia's military manoeuvres around the disputed area are likely to continue. The Defence Ministry has dismissed Japanese concern, pointing out that its strategic bombers did not violate Japan's airspace; Russia is also planning to conduct large-scale naval drills in the region.
Sources: Russia Today, RIA Novosti, Voice of Russia



Friday, 9 September 2011

India and Bangladesh sign border deal, but fail to agree on water resources

A deal between the leaders of India and Bangladesh has resolved one of the world's most convoluted borders, swapping over 150 enclaves and agreeing on the demarcation of their 4,000km boundary, although they failed to agree on sharing water resources.

In Dhaka on 6th September, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina signed the long-awaited border agreement, which has been a point of contention between the two neighbours since Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan in 1971. It settles the status of 162 enclaves (111 Indian enclaves within Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves within India), in which approximately 200,000 people live in a state of limbo without proper citizenship of either state.

The deal is a net loss of around 40 km2 for India; insignificant for a country of its size, but one which has led to accusations by the opposition that the government is abandoning Indian territory. Such criticisms are closely connected with fears about illegal immigration from Bangladesh and the associated danger of infiltration by Islamist militants. These fears, and the torturous and unclear nature of the boundary, have led to border guards killing hundreds over the past decade.

The simplification of the boundary line will help to reduce cross-border tensions; at Dhaka University, Singh said that he is “acutely conscious of the problems that arise due to the incidents on the border. We have now put in place mechanisms which we hope will greatly reduce the scope for such incidents and strengthen mutual trust and goodwill”.

Some of the other deals which Singh and Hasina signed will also help to improve bilateral ties. Under the new accords, India will allow the duty-free import of Bangladeshi textiles; both sides will improve border infrastructure to facilitate trade (while India will assist in providing a rail link between Bangladesh and Nepal); and they will work towards connecting their power grids.

Just as important, however, are the deals which Singh and Hasina did not sign. They failed to agree on the sharing of water resources from the Teesta river. In principle India had agreed to a deal which gave Bangladesh 48 per cent of the river's water, but West Bengal's Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, said the deal would harm farmers in the state and cancelled her plans to accompany Singh to Dhaka.

Bangladeshi officials have privately expressed anger at the collapse of the deal, and Singh expressed his disappointment. He was also at pains to point out that India would work to ensure that its Tipaimukh dam project on the Barak river would not harm Bangladesh, as many have feared.

Sources: The Hindu, Voice of America, The Tribune

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Somali regions agree truce after border clashes

The leaders of two of Somalia's autonomous regions have agreed a UN-backed truce, after heavy border fighting, blamed on either clan feuding or Islamist militants, killed at least 30.

The fighting broke out on 1st September in Galkayo, a town of around 500,000 which lies on the administrative border between the autonomous regions of Puntland, in Somalia's north-east, and Galmadug. Unlike Somaliland to the northwest, neither region is seeking outright independence from Somalia. Given the impotence of the beleaguered government in Mogadishu, however, both areas largely run their own affairs, with their own military forces.

Control of Galkayo is divided between the two regions, with Puntland governing the northern area of the town and Galmadug administering the southern tip. In February 2011, the two regions signed an accord agreeing to coordinate on security and economic affairs, in Galkayo and in the wider border region.

This accord did not prevent the recent round of clashes, which involved heavy artillery and killed the head of Puntland's paramilitary forces. The Puntland Interior Ministry claimed that their security forces raided areas of the town to fend off an attack by the Al-Shabab militia, which dominates central and southern Somalia. They accused the Galmadug authorities of “aiding the terrorists by providing safe refuge, medical assistance and even ammunition.”

The Galmadug administration denied the charges, and insisted that the fighting was between two sub-clans. Media outlets supporting this version of events claimed that the recent deployment of police forces from a rival sub-clan to most Galkayo police officers created friction which boiled over into gun battles.

The ceasefire was brokered by the UN Political Office in Somalia, which brought together the two regional presidents in Mogadishu. According to a press release, the two sides “agreed to (1) establish and maintain direct communication at the highest level, (2) address future issues in a cooperative manner and (3) recognize that they face a common threat from insurgent groups.”

Previous accords have been insufficient to stop the violence. The divided nature of Galkayo's administration, the lack of government control over local militias, and the ongoing threat from al-Shabab, make it plausible that violence will flare up again the future.

Sources; Garowe Online, AFP, BBC, UN Political Office in Somalia

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Lebanon-Israel boundary dispute goes to UN, while Turkey boosts regional naval presence

On 5th September Lebanon filed a formal complaint with the UN over its maritime dispute with Israel, warning that the Israeli proposal for the border line “puts international peace and security at risk” and urging the UN “to take all necessary measures to avoid conflict."

The Foreign Ministry in Beirut has sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon rejecting the northern boundaries of Israel's claim, which was submitted to the UN in July. Some weeks earlier, the Lebanese parliament approved a draft law which demarcates the country's maritime borders, following a formal proposal to the UN last year.

Lebanon's case is that over 860 km2 of its exclusive economic zone, in which a state has 'sovereign rights' over marine resources, is infringed by the Israeli claim. The area in question contains significant quantities of oil and gas, and US-listed explorer Noble Energy has already begun developing large gas fields in the Israeli sector of the Mediterranean.

Lebanon's decision to file a formal complaint raises the stakes further, although by moving the ball into the UN's court it maycommit both parties to arbitration and reduce the risk of conflict. Pursuing the case through arbitration would also help to marginalise the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah, which has threatened reprisals if Israel begins drilling in disputed waters.

There have been further signs of tension in the Levant over the past few days, however. On 4th September, Lebanon accused Israeli jets of violating its airspace: a common enough refrain over the past few years, but one which takes on additional significance when relations between the two sides, still technically at war, are so strained.

The collapse in the Turkey-Israel relationship is also adding to tensions in the Levant. On 2nd September the Israeli ambassador in Ankara was expelled after Israel again refused to apologise for the Gaza flotilla raid in May 2010, in which nine Turkish citizens were killed.

On 6th September Turkey's blunt-talking Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced that all remaining ties with Israel would be cut, and Turkish warships “will be seen more frequently” in the eastern Mediterranean. Erdogan has cast himself as the champion of the Arab world, and a greater naval presence could tempt Turkey into intervening in the Israel-Lebanon spat. Given the disputed nature of the region's maritime borders, the chances for accusations and miscalculations are likely to increase even further.

Sources: AFP, Daily Star, Reuters

Monday, 5 September 2011

Kurdish rebel groups agree to coordinate operations against Iran

On 3rd September Kurdish militant groups fighting in Turkey and Iran announced that they are coordinating their activities, following an upsurge in attacks by the Iranian and Turkish militaries.

The Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), which operates in south-eastern Turkey, and the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK), fighting in north-western Iran, will combine forces against the Iranian military in response to an onslaught against their safe havens along the borders with Iraq.

The PKK, of which the PJAK is a subsidiary, announced the move, stating that “the goal of Iran is eliminating the Kurdish people, and not the PJAK party, and these are the reasons that led us to take this decision”.

Iranian forces, spearheaded by the elite Revolutionary Guard, launched a major offensive against the PJAK in July. Reports indicate that dozens of rebels and Iranian soldiers have been killed in the fighting. Meanwhile Turkey began its own offensive after the PKK ambushed a number of military convoys in the volatile south-east.

Both operations have seen numerous cross-border attacks into northern Iraq. Turkish warplanes have bombed dozens of targets in the Qandil Mountains in Iraq, whilst Iran has sent ground forces over the border to destroy PJAK bases. The government of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region has complained about both the military incursions and the continuing provocations by the PKK and PJAK, which have used the mountainous region as a base for many years.

On 9th August the PKK's leader Murat Karayilan told Kurdish media outlets that he was withdrawing PJAK forces from the Iranian border to PKK camps as a “unilateral measure to prevent any further attacks”. However in the same statement he announced that PKK forces would be based on the border instead, and did not wish to fight Iran but would do so if Iranian forces attacked PKK units.

The latest statement seems to amount to a declaration of war by the PKK against Iran. This suggests much greater practical coordination between the militant groups in the future, which in turn is likely to be met with increased cooperation by the Turkish and Iranian militaries. This raising of stakes will mean more cross-border operations and increased diplomatic tensions, both with the Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq and the central government in Baghdad.

Sources: AFP, Today's Zaman, Hurriyet, PRESS TV

Thursday, 1 September 2011

China, Philippines positive on defusing South China Sea tensions

China and the Philippines are closer to settling a long-running dispute over their maritime boundary, after a state visit by Philippine President Beningno Aquino to Beijing which began on 31st August. During the visit Aquino, who this summer has been bullish towards China, struck a conciliatory note. Calling for greater economic links between the two states, he announced that “the Philippines is indeed open for business”.

The Philippine President is accompanied by 300 business leaders in an attempt to boost bilateral economic relations, anticipating an increase to $60 billion in five years, up from $27.7 billion in 2010. 

However the main focus of the visit is on the contested border in the South China Sea, where the Philippines – like many other Southeast Asian states – are at loggerheads with Beijing over maritime boundaries and the ownership of the isolated Spratly Islands. Disputes over the islands, or rather the extensive oil and gas reserves believed to lie beneath them, are a potential flashpoint for conflict.

Aquino and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao released a joint statement on 1st September, in which they “agreed not to let the maritime disputes affect the broader picture of friendship and cooperation” and “reiterated their commitment to addressing the disputes through peaceful dialogue”. Although this is standard diplomatic boilerplate, Aquino did reveal some signs of progress the previous evening. 

Speaking to reporters after meeting Hu, Aquino revealed that China is now calling for a legally binding code of conduct for all nations operating in the South China Sea. This would go beyond the non-binding 'guidelines' which regional states had agreed on at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in July. Aquino was buoyed by the news, calling the Chinese proposal “very significant”. Hu also contributed to the positive atmosphere, calling for the South China Sea to develop into “a sea of friendship, peace and cooperation”. 

A legally binding code of conduct would be difficult to draw up, if the wrangling over the July guidelines is any guide. Disagreements between the ASEAN nations ensured that the proposals were ambiguous and vague. Other regional states will be watching carefully to see if China's proposed code of conduct would favour Beijing or be designed to exclude the US, which has backed the smaller states, from regional affairs. Given China's assertive stance in the South China Sea, it is unlikely to make any concessions. 

In any case, a code of conduct would be extremely difficult to enforce. Most regional states have strayed from the spirit if not the letter of the 'Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea', agreed in 2002. It would be surprising if a legally binding code of conduct would seem sacrosanct when other legal tools, such as international arbitration, have yet to prevent regional disputes and confrontations.

Sources: AFP, Reuters, Bloomberg, Xinhua

Sudan refers Kordofan border clashes to UN Security Council


Following intensive clashes in the border region between Sudan and newly-independent South Sudan, the Khartoum government has filed a complaint with the UN Security Council accusing its neighbour of fomenting instability.
The clashes in South Kordofan began in June, a month before the formal declaration of South Sudanese independence, but have flared up recently, with the Sudanese government accused of indiscriminate aerial bombing of civilian areas. Around 200,000 are believed to have fled their homes. An unexpected government ceasefire announced on 23rd August does not appear to have ended the fighting.

Sudanese government forces are seeking to neutralise armed rebels from the Nuba ethnic group. Although now located north of the border, many of the Nuba sided with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army during the southern group's twenty-year war against Khartoum. Non-Arab like most of South Sudan's population, the Nuba community also complained of discrimination and oppression by the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum. 

Sudan now views the pro-southerners which are left within its territory as a potential fifth column for the new government in Juba. In its complaint to the UN, the Sudanese government has accused South Sudan of arming and instructing the rebels in the Nuba Mountains. A Sudanese government spokesman said on 30th August that Khartoum has “documented proof” that the insurrection is being orchestrated by Juba. 

The complaint also cited numerous alleged border violations by South Sudan, including the deployment of military forces in the disputed, oil-rich area of Abyei (which borders South Kordofan) in violation of the 2005 peace deal, and failing to withdraw forces from a disputed border strip. Juba has denied all the accusations.
This new international element to the long-simmering rebellion increases risks for the wider border situation between Sudan and South Sudan. South Kordofan is adjacent to Abyei, a focal point of north-south tensions because of its oil wealth. 

An uptick in fighting between the Sudanese army and the rebels, or cross-border raids, could raise the prospect of the southern Sudanese military – at this point still a cobbled-together force of former rebels – becoming involved.

Sources: BBC, Reuters, Sudan Tribune