Clinton Back to Work

Posted January 7th, 2013 at 6:03 pm (UTC+0)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, right foreground, meets with her assistants Jan. 7, 2013 after returning to work following treatment for a blood clot near her brain. Photo: State Department

Clinton Hopes For Strong Finish After Disappointing December

This is not how Hillary Clinton imagined ending her run as secretary of state.

After a month of recovering from a stomach virus, a concussion, and a blood clot between her brain and skull, she returns to work this week with senior State Department officials already prepping Massachusetts Senator John Kerry to replace her.

After 112 countries of face-to-face diplomacy over the past four years, Clinton is being kept close to home by doctors monitoring blood thinners dissolving the clot behind her right ear.

With the Senate reconvening mid-January and fellow lawmakers expected to confirm Kerry quickly, Team Clinton has little time to regain the valedictory momentum it was building in public policy appearances designed to define her diplomatic legacy and keep boosters eager for more – possibly a run for the presidency in 2016.

Before sickness forced her to cancel a trip to North Africa and the Middle East in early December, that campaign hit its stride with a gala dinner for Brookings’ Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

An effusive, highly-produced video tribute featured Clinton embracing Aung San Suu Kyi, looking across the Korean demilitarized zone, and rallying NATO action against Moammar Gadhafi.

Praise from her peers

There were testimonials from Arizona Senator John McCain: “Her public service…has endeared her to millions and millions of people all over the world;” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “I don’t think we’ve heard the last of Hillary Clinton;” and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair: “I just have an instinct the best is yet to come.”

“In all those foreign trips, despite all that jet-lag, you’ve represented the very best of America,” President Obama chimed in with his own video. “Through it all, I’ve relied on the shinning qualities that have defined your life: your conviction, your optimism, your belief that America can and must be a force for good in the world.”

Clinton was clearly pleased.

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry smiles Dec. 21, 2012, as he is nominated by President Obama to succeed Hillary Clinton as U.S. secretary of state. Photo: AP

“I am somewhat overwhelmed, but I’m obviously thinking I should sit down,” she told the Brookings audience to much laughter. “I prepared some remarks for tonight, but then I thought maybe we could just watch that video a few more times.”

“There wasn’t much doubt about the ultimate direction,” The New Yorker’s David Remnick writes of that night. “2007-8 was but a memory and 2016 was within sight. She’s running.”

All the more reason she find a way to finish strong. But Clinton advisors working to get her back on track must first get her past the Benghazi disaster, in which the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed by gunmen last September.

Deputies Bill Burns and Tom Nides took the brunt of Congressional criticism over an independent review report concluding that managerial failures at the State Department had undermined security at the Libyan diplomatic facilities.

Republicans have questions

Clinton was excused from congressional testimony after fainting at home, but Republicans expect her to answer their questions now that she has recovered.

Is a presidential run in 2016 in the cards for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, shown here at a news conference last November? Photo: AP

“It’s imperative that she come before this committee,” said Tennessee Senator Bob Corker. “I think it would be really a shame to turn the page on this and go to a new regime without her being here.”

If she does testify about Benghazi, she could face tough questions from Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who is considered a likely presidential candidate as well in 2016.  Rubio is on record questioning how high State’s managerial failures went, saying he is puzzled by the review report placing so much blame on lower-level assistant secretaries.

“Why I find that quite puzzling is that because Benghazi, and Libya in general, is not some remote outpost. It’s not Luxembourg,” Rubio said. “I mean this is a country that we were involved in militarily not so long ago in a high-profile intervention.”

That intervention, in March of 2011, looked like a big success for the Obama administration, something that someone closely associated with might use in a subsequent presidential campaign.

Despite the Benghazi issue and current confusion atop the new government in Tripoli, Cato Institute analyst Malou Innocent believes Clinton’s tenure at State helps her politically.

“As foreign policy wonks in Washington, D.C., we can sort of dissect here and there,” Innocent says. “But for the majority of the American people, they are going to look at her resume, which has been stunning. So certainly that will help her in 2016.”





US, Algeria See Moderate Tuaregs as Key to Ending Mali Partition

Posted October 30th, 2012 at 9:02 pm (UTC+0)

Extremist rebels have taken control of much of northern Mali since March and have allied themselves with the Tuareg people of the region. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is holding talks on ways to deal with the issue.

The best chance for breaking the extremists’ hold on northern Mali may be persuading the region’s moderate Tuareg people to reconcile with the military-controlled South of the country.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Algeria this week seeking the country’s support for a West African force to help Mali’s military regain control of the north. And her talks with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika were dominated by the issue of how to deal with the terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists who took control of more than two-thirds of Mali after a coup toppled the government in Bamako last March.

Since then, the extremists have allowed the terrorist group al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, to extend its already-considerable reach throughout the Sahel region.

Secretary Clinton says AQIM is working with other extremists to undermine democratic transitions in North Africa. She adds that the group was part of the attack on the U.S. mission in the Libyan city of Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in September.

 One possible approach to countering the extremists and their terrorist allies came up during Secretary Clinton’s meeting with Mr. Bouteflika — that Algeria might intercede with the Tuareg people of northern Mali, many of whom have allied themselves with the extremists. The idea was that without help from the Tuaregs, the extremists would lose their support, allowing Bamako to re-establish its control of the north.

 The ECOWAS Force

A military approach also is in the works. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is working with Mali’s military-backed transitional authority in Bamako on plans for a 3,300-strong military force to help retrain the army and retake the north.

Like the East African AMISOM force in Somalia, that West African force will depend heavily on international support for military intelligence and logistics. So Algeria’s help is crucial.

“A whole range of countries in the region really look to Algeria for leadership on this,” says a senior U.S. official traveling with the secretary of state. “Obviously, they’re not ceding sovereignty, but they know Algeria has unique capabilities that no one else in the region really has — the strength of its military forces, its intelligence-gathering capability.”

U.S. Involvement

Secretary Clinton was in Algeria Monday, Oct, 29, seeking help from President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (left) in dealing with the rebels in northern Mali. Photo: AP

Greater U.S. involvement in that effort should go some way toward soothing Algerian unease about the prominent role that the French are playing in preparing the ECOWAS force. That U.S. involvement is an extension of Washington’s existing counterterrorism cooperation with Algiers.

“The whole reason to have ECOWAS out front along with Malian forces is to have an African lead,” says a senior U.S. official. “So the question then for the United States, for France, for Algeria, for other interested states, is how to support that force.”

Recognizing the security threat along its own 2,000 kilometer border with Mali, Algeria is looking for a political solution.

In his talks with Secretary Clinton, President Bouteflika spoke of Algeria’s historic role as a mediator between Bamako and the Tuaregs, an ethnic Berber people who inhabit parts of Mali and other nations in the Sahara region. He also spoke about how the extremists in northern Mali are trying to exploit Tuareg grievances.

With this in mind, Secretary Clinton says the counterterrorism efforts and a political process must therefore be mutually reinforcing.

“We need to ensure that the political process within Mali addresses the legitimate grievances of the moderate faction of the Tuaregs so that they see their future as lying within a democratic, unitary Mali, and to reduce the space for extremists to act,” says a senior State Department official.

The targets for that effort are more the moderate elements in the Tuareg rebel militia, Ansar Dine. It is believed these elements may be more approachable than more extreme factions such as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa.

U.S. officials say there is also a push to counter the way the extremists are financing their activities through kidnapping for ransom. Efforts are being made to cut links between the Mali extremists and organized crime and drug cartels, the officials say, and to have Algeria’s foreign ministry organize more regular contacts with counterparts in Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, and Tunisia.

“We have an awful lot at stake here, an awful lot of common interests,” says a senior U.S. official, “and there’s a strong recognition that Algeria has to be a central part of the solution.”


Kurds the Key for Syrian Opposition

Posted October 24th, 2012 at 8:53 pm (UTC+0)


Boys play football amid the civil war wreckage in Homs, a city that has been in the center of the fighting for almost 20 months. Photo: Reuters

 Concern About Broader Autonomy Undermines Support for Uprising

Kurdish reluctance is frustrating efforts by opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to form some kind of transitional administration that could win support from foreign governments.

Syrian Kurds have walked out on several attempts to form a unified opposition, complaining that expatriate politicians don’t adequately recognize their status as a people, or their long-standing demands for autonomy. Some opposition leaders are saying the Kurds won’t sufficiently commit to a unified post-Assad Syria.

“It is absolutely the case that the relationship between the mainstream opposition in exile and Syria’s Kurds has been largely antagonistic and very, very tense,” says Steve Heydemann, senior advisor for Middle East Initiatives at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “That gets back to the question of this mutual lack of trust.”

President Assad moved to encourage that mistrust early in the 20-month-old Syrian conflict by granting Kurdish communities greater political freedoms.

“This really put them on their heels,” says Cato Institute Middle East analyst Malou Innocent. “They said: ‘Well, should we continue our assistance to the rebellion or should we actually stick this out and see if Assad continues to hold onto power?’ They are in the middle.”


A Decisive Minority

Innocent says Kurds are Syria’s “decisive minority, and they have been on the fence.”

Heydemann credits Kurdish leaders for largely resisting President Assad’s bid to secure their loyalty. But on the other hand, he says, “they have also resisted efforts by the opposition leadership to draw the Syrian Kurdish community firmly onto the side of the revolution.”

Kurdish misgivings over the composition of Syria’s political opposition create gaps that Heydemann says “remain very, very large. Efforts have continued to try to bridge those gaps, but they haven’t made a great deal of progress.”

Chief among the so-called “Friends of Syria” trying to bridge the gaps is the United States.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says the Obama administration has repeatedly stressed the need to see “all of the groups in Syria working together on a future that provides a place for Syrians of all different stripes, whether they are Alawi, Sunni, Kurd, Druze, Christians — whomever they are.

“So from that perspective,” Nuland said, “we have consistently encouraged the opposition groups to incorporate the Kurdish opposition as well.”

Nuland says some Kurds are cooperating with the opposition Syrian National Congress.

“There are also a number of reports from inside Syria of some of the liberated areas where Kurdish populations and Sunni populations are working well together,” she says. “That’s certainly the direction that we encourage for the Syria that emerges from this — to be representative of all and welcoming of all.”


Concerns in Washington

But Washington remains mindful of the ties between Syria’s largest Kurdish political group — the Democratic Unity Party, or PYD — and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, that the European Union and the United States both consider a terrorist group.

“The Turkish government has been very explicit in stating that if they perceived any direct effort by the PYD to engage in anti-Turkish activities, especially across the border, that they would respond very forcefully,” Heydemann says.

“So the components are there for some significant tensions to emerge as the Kurds try to exploit this opportunity of the uprising to advance some long term relationships and use their connections to other regional communities as a bargaining chip in doing so.”

Tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing the civil war violence have taken refuge in neighboring nations. Shown here is a refugee family in the Al Zaatri camp near Mafraq, Jordan, Oct. 24, 2012. Photo: Reuters

Heydemann says some Syrian Kurds are receiving military training in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he says there is also political consultation about the best bargaining positions.

“I don’t think they intend to play the regime against the opposition,” he says. “But they do feel that they have an opportunity to use this moment to try and advance some of their long-standing concerns that they don’t feel either side has really responded to yet.”

Malou Innocent believes many Kurds have still not decided where their loyalties should be placed.

“They don’t know how this will pan out,” she says. “Especially when we see the FSA, the Free Syrian Army. They do have light weapons. They have been somewhat effective. But they are still up against a very capable Syrian army, one of the strongest militaries in the region.”

With the fighting in northern Syria driving more than 100,000 refugees into Turkey and Iraq, it’s especially important to have Kurdish participation at upcoming talks in Doha toward an opposition “leadership council.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the idea is to create a “leadership structure that endorses inclusion, democratic process, peaceful political transition, and reassure all Syrians, particularly those who are in minority groups, that there is a path forward if everyone supports it.”



Success of Sudan Oil Deal Could Hinge on Abyei

Posted October 12th, 2012 at 7:24 pm (UTC+0)

AU Awaits Mbeki Report

The long term success of an oil and security deal between Sudan and South Sudan could depend on the much disputed Abyei border region.

That’s why Princeton Lyman, the U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, says Abyei’s exclusion from the agreement between presidents Omar al-Bashir and Salva Kiir is “a big, big loss.”

And Lyman says it’s going to take a lot of work, by both governments, to demilitarize the border and deal with remaining issues such as Abyei and humanitarian access to the border regions of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile.

“They should not let these things slip,” he warns.

Thabo Mbeki, the African Union chief mediator, is trying to keep momentum going with talks in Khartoum and Juba ahead of his October 21 report to the AU Peace and Security Council.

Lyman says that’s an opening for the international community to back AU recommendations on Abyei, a 10,000 square kilometer region straddling the still undefined border between the two nations.

“We didn’t make a lot of progress there,” Lyman says. “This has to be now a very high priority for the international community.”

The Abyei region, stradding the border region between Sudan and South Sudan, is highly contested because of its strategic location and possible mineral deposits. Map: VOA


Solution is “imperative”

John Prendergast is co-founder of the Enough Project, a Sudan advocacy group. He agrees.

“Despite Abyei’s central role as a catalyst for North-South tensions, the international community has historically dodged the difficult issue of the area’s final status,” Prendergast writes. “Determining the final status of Abyei and resolving the other outstanding issues is imperative for any sort of sustainable peace between the two countries.”

The African Union offered an Abyei solution in the September oil and security plan. But Khartoum refused a proposed referendum because it did not include Arab nomads among eligible voters. Those Messriyah nomads graze cattle several months a year in an area that is home to nine Ngok Dinka chiefdoms.

Jennifer Christian, a Sudan policy analyst with the Enough Project, says Mbeki’s report should help the international community frame its response to the outstanding issues between Sudan and South Sudan, including the final status of Abyei.

“If history teaches us anything, it’s that a failure on the part of the international community to take a strong stance on Abyei now will very likely result in further violence on the ground in the near future,” Christian writes, calling on the AU to push for U.N. ratification of the plan “as the final resolution of the two Sudans’ dispute over the area.”


Referendum opposed

The Sudanese foreign ministry spokesman, Al-Obeid Ahmed Marawah, says his government prefers a political agreement over a plebiscite because “the referendum would end by attributing Abyei to one of the two countries.

“And this will not satisfy the other party. Therefore, this could cause a new conflict between the two people [ Messriyah and Ngok Dinkas] of Abyei and it might extend to between the two countries,” Marawah says.

And that, in turn, threatens the new deal over the sharing of oil-revenue, which Ambassador Lyman says “holds tremendous potential benefits for the people of both countries, particularly in South Sudan where there has been serious rises in food prices, shortages of fuel, and insecurity on the border.”

Oil revenues account for more than 90 percent of Juba’s budget. So the suspension of exports earlier this year – to protest of higher fees for using Khartoum’s pipelines and port — set back ambitious infrastructure goals for the new nation.

“By restoring this income, the country can go back to investing heavily in development,” Lyman says. “While the production was down, all the resources were just to keep things going, keep things in place as much as possible. They couldn’t go ahead with roads.”

Lyman says Sudan benefits not only from an additional $15 a barrel surcharge over three-and-a-half years, but also from increased security along the border “where people are hurting, the economy is in difficulty, and there is too much attention to war and conflict.”


U.S. Wants Brahimi to Help Unify Syrian Opposition

Posted September 26th, 2012 at 6:06 pm (UTC+0)
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi at U.N. headquarters September 25. Photo: Reuters

Envoy Appears in No Rush to Put Forward Plan to End Violence

In their first meeting since Lakhdar Brahimi became the U.N. Special Representative to Syria, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked him to help unify opponents of embattled president Bashar al-Assad.

“The Secretary was very much encouraging Special Representative Brahimi to himself be very focused on this element of it,” says a senior State Department official who was in their talks, “that as he tries to pursue diplomacy, it is in his interest to help contribute to a more cohesive opposition that can play an effective role in carrying out the transition.”

The failure of civilian and military opponents to come together behind a single strategy has complicated efforts by the so-called “Friends of Syria” to fund and arm their campaign against Damascus.

That comes as no surprise in a country where the Assad family has spent years sowing division among the minority groups, says Cato Institute Middle East analyst Malou Innocent.

“There is infighting in terms of what they want from the Assad regime. Some want a no-fly zone. Some don’t want any Western interference,” she says. “Some want more rights from the Assad regime. Some only recently have been willing to not speak with the Assad regime.”

“The one thing that is uniting them is opposition to Assad and his crackdown, but not really an inclusive vision of what they want in a post-Assad Syria,” Innocent says. “That inability to cobble together a meaningful political settlement in the future is really what’s dividing them and limiting their ability to create more cohesion.”


Friends of Syria meet in New York

Some foreign ministers from “Friends of Syria” countries will meet on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, and U.S. officials say opposition disunity will again top the agenda. More than 80 nations have taken part in meetings of the “Friends of Syria” group, which is largely made up of the United States, the European Union and members of the Arab League.

“This is a complicated, multi-sided, diplomatic effort involving people on the inside and people on the outside, involving people of different backgrounds and different professions and different regions of the country,” says a senior State Department official. “It is not surprising that it takes both time and real spadework to try to create a cohesive opposition that can effectively steward a transition.”

“Taking steps related to opposition cohesion is something I think [Secretary Clinton] sees as an important predicate to an effective transition, an effective diplomatic process that produces the result we’re looking for.”

Kurds have been stumbling block

Lakhdar Brahimi, shown here at the Al Zaatri refugee camp in Jordan September 18, is taking a methodical approach to Syrian peace efforts. Photo: Reuters

Among the obstacles to that cohesion is the position of Syria’s Kurds, who have walked out of previous efforts to unify the opposition.

At the start of the uprising, President Assad granted political rights to Kurds in an attempt to keep them from joining rebels. Analyst Malou Innocent says that has successfully led to divisions within the Kurdish community.

“They don’t know where to put their loyalties,” she says. “They don’t know how this will pan out, especially when we see the FSA (Free Syrian Army) with light weapons. They have been somewhat effective, but they are still up against a very-capable Syrian army and one of the strongest militaries in the region.”

Given Syria’s military stalemate, U.S. officials say Special Representative Brahimi appears in no hurry to offer another peace plan following the failure of his predecessor, the former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

“Brahimi is very focused on how you create the conditions for some kind of diplomatic process to unfold,” says a senior State Department official. “But he was also realistic; that right at the moment, we’re not around the corner from a diplomatic process being launched, and more work needs to be done to lay the ground.”

“He was clear with [Secretary Clinton] that he is not going to rush into putting a plan on the table,” the U.S. official says, “that he wants to be systematic in doing his consultations, he wants to look for opportunities and openings, he wants to find as many building blocks as he can piece together to ultimately come up with a strategy that he believes is workable.”



Clinton Lauds Singapore’s ASEAN Leadership in Conflict Resolution

Posted September 24th, 2012 at 9:28 pm (UTC+0)

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, meets with Indonesia’s Foreign Minister R.M. Marty Natalegawa, at the State Department in Washington, on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012. (AP Photo)

Comfortable with Indonesian mediation over rival territorial claims in the South China Sea, the United States is working to broaden Singapore’s role in resolving the dispute.

On his way to New York for the U.N. General Assembly, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa stopped in Washington to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to discuss “the kind of efforts Indonesia is trying to make to create an environment in our region that is peaceful and stable and therefore prosperous as well.”

Thanking him for “personal leadership that has helped lay the groundwork for diplomacy between ASEAN and China as it relates to the South China Sea,” Clinton reaffirmed the Obama administration’s support for a leading role for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to “reduce tensions and pave the way for a comprehensive code of conduct for addressing disputes without threats, coercion, or use of force.”

Over the past few decades, China has increasingly asserted its claim of sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, and scores of tiny, mostly uninhabited islands and reefs. Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also claim parts of the sea.

Clinton and Natalegawa have worked well together on the South China Sea issue, says a senior State Department official, as “the supporting states around Indonesia, encouraging Indonesia, explaining what are the necessary components of sort of advancing the ball in the South China Sea [and how it] would include Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei.”

“Each of them play a very careful and quiet role,” says the official. “None of them enjoy being in the spotlight. All of them would prefer progress be made, but don’t want to expose themselves to unnecessary scrutiny or criticism.”

A changing relationship

U.S. Council on Foreign Relations analyst Joshua Kurlantzick says Washington is “definitely walking a fine balance with some of these countries, like Singapore, where our ties are increasingly close. They are the best in the region.”

“Singapore, I think, is walking farther away from the role it has historically played, which is really close to the U.S., but it sort of publicly didn’t talk about it and still tried to be a balancer,” he says. “I think we are moving with them closer to a more traditional alliance.”

But Washington-based Cato Institute analyst Justin Logan offers a different perspective. While he agrees that Singapore is moving closer to the United States, especially on the South China Sea, he says it may not result in such a traditional alliance.

“The United States likes to have very, very enthusiastic allies,” Logan says. “And I think that the Singaporeans tend to have a more reserved, more calculated, careful approach. So it is certainly true that relations between the United States and Singapore have gotten better. They are getting more attention in Washington. But I do not think that you are going to have this extraordinarily tight, sometimes ebullient-style relationship that the United States has enjoyed in the past.”

A geopolitically strategic position

Singapore, home to a small U.S. military base of mainly naval personnel that act primarily as logistical support for ships and aircraft passing through the region, understands well its position at the nexus of South China Sea claims.

“Everybody wants to sit down and talk with the Singaporeans,” he says. “And they realize that everybody wants to be friendly with the Singaporeans. Given their strategic positioning in this, they have played, I think, a very adept diplomatic game in trying to be friendly with everyone because everyone wants to be friendly with them.”

State Department officials point to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s speech in Beijing ahead of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in which he said the Chinese government and people are determined to overcome “various challenges” but stressed that ASEAN must take a position “which is neutral, forward-looking and encourages the peaceful resolution of issues,” because to do otherwise “would severely damage its credibility.”

“We should never underestimate the U.S. capacity to reinvigorate and reinvent itself,” Lee told Communist Party leaders. “The U.S. is an enormously resilient and creative society, which attracts and absorbs talent from all over the world, including many from China and the rest of Asia.”

Lee’s speech, say State Department officials, appeared to be aimed at both Chinese leaders and ASEAN colleagues.

“I think what Singapore is trying to do is create more space for dialogue and discussion, and has made very clear that the approach that we have articulated has found some common cause among ASEAN leaders,” a senior official says.

Brunei’s emerging role

One of those is leaders is Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, with whom Secretary Clinton visited as part of her APEC trip.

“They’re low-key, but concerned about how ASEAN has managed the situation today,” a senior State Department official says of Brunei’s role in the South China Sea. “They tried very hard to work behind the scenes toward consensus in advance of the East Asia Summit in November.”

Like many ASEAN countries, they want very much to have a good relationship with the United States and China, says the official.

“They don’t want to have to choose. But at the same time, they are very committed to defending their sovereignty and feel very strongly that issues associated with the South China Sea have to be resolved in a conciliatory, diplomatic manner, and are worried about coercion generally.”

“They do most of their business behind the scenes, not out in the open,” the State Department official adds. “But I think they’re somewhat nervous about next year when they’re going to host the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum, largely because they would like to avoid the kinds of public tensions that we witnessed when we were in Cambodia.”


U.S. Sees Ongoing Tensions Over South China Sea

Posted September 7th, 2012 at 6:18 pm (UTC+0)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chats with the sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, before sitting down to dinner Sept. 6. Clinton is touring the South China Sea region in an attempt to calm tensions over rival claims to the area. Photo: AP

Increased maritime Incidents Cited

Rival claims to the South China Sea by China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, and the Philippines “are going to go through a period of higher tensions, no matter what,” according to senior State Department official traveling in Asia with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“The countries of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) have to get used to periods of intensity and focus,” the U.S. official told reporters. “We are not going to be able to go back to situations in which things were easy, and that decisions were made without certain amounts of strain. I think this is the new normal.”

That certainly seemed to be the case when Clinton visited Beijing this week as part of her tour of the region to calm tensions over the South China Sea. She found little appetite for compromise during her meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jeichi. After their talks, Yang cited what he said was “plentiful historical and jurisprudential evidence” for Chinese sovereignty over South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters.

China wants to deal with each of its rivals one-on-one and is moving to exploit competing claims within ASEAN to keep its members divided. The United States, meanwhile, is trying to foster a unified ASEAN code of conduct in the dispute with China.

“All of this requires hard work, heavy lifting, very challenging discussions,” the senior U.S. official said. “ASEAN has generally been content to sort of skate on the surface and to avoid debates. These issues are going to be much more difficult to deal with.”

Tensions over the South China Sea seem to spike in patterns: 1987, 1995, 2004.

“I think the spikes are probably going to come more regularly, and probably have a more intense duration,” the senior State Department official said. “Obviously, our desire is to see these matters dealt with peacefully and diplomatically. But I do think we have to be prepared for more tension.”

That may be especially so because China is pouring more money into its navy to counter the U.S. pivot of military, diplomatic, and economic resources to Asia.

“There is a small risk, and I think it’s a growing risk, that an incident at sea could escalate into conflict involving China and one of its neighbors, and I think that’s what we’re all worried about,” said Rory Medcalf, director of the International Security Program at Australia’s Lowy Institute.

China’s claims to most of the South China Sea region is raising tensions and skirmishes at sea are already taking place. VOA map

According to analyst Robert Kaplan of the Texas-based Stratfor Global Intelligence group, Washington is struggling to maintain balance in the sea.

“Though the United States must prevent China from dominating the South China Sea, it must be careful not to be drawn into a conflict with China at the behest of countries like the Philippines and Vietnam,” Kaplan said.

But the increasingly strident nationalism in Beijing, Hanoi, and Manila is making it harder to keep that balance.


More skirmishes at sea

“The truth is we have many more skirmishes in the South China Sea than people realize,” the senior State Department official said. “Fishing vessels being shot on, bumpings, all sorts of things. The key is that they not escalate.

“There is a very certain and definite rise in nationalism, which triggers issues associated with territory, with history, and with politics. And it is a very potent brew. It leads to really unpredictable circumstances,” the senior official said. “Everyone appreciates right now that the larger effort has to be towards sustaining economic growth in Asia. And then, if you go down this path, everyone is going to be badly hurt.”

At the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, Oriana Skylar Mastro says the Obama administration needs to help raise the standard of behavior for all of the rival claimants.

“The United States should not only communicate that the use of force by claimants is unacceptable, but also that coercive diplomacy of this sort should not be tolerated,” Mastro said.

Secretary Clinton is hoping this weekend’s APEC summit in Vladivostok helps build momentum for a code of conduct to deal with South China Sea issues before November’s East Asia Summit in Cambodia.

But given ASEAN’s failure to make progress at a foreign ministerial meeting in July, analyst Justin Logan of the Washington-based Cato Institute has his doubts.

“I think bringing in different countries will create a different dynamic,” he said. “Although, in all likelihood, many of the countries that were in involved in the first go around will be very, very reticent to get back involved again seeing the sour outcome that happened in ASEAN.”




China Says No Questioning Its Sovereignty Over South China Sea

Posted September 6th, 2012 at 2:45 pm (UTC+0)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister exchange views on the South China Sea at a news conference in Beijing Sept. 5. Photo: AP/Feng Li, Pool

Clinton Says U.S. Will Stand Up For Strategic Interests

Hillary Clinton visited Beijing this week at the height of Communist Party maneuvering over the formation of a new Chinese government.  Given that timing, she found no room for compromise over competing territorial claims by China and its neighbors over the South China Sea.

“China has sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and their adjacent waters,” Foreign Minister Yang Jeichi told her bluntly. “There is plentiful historical and jurisprudential evidence for that.”

And as for competing claims to the islands and waters by the likes of Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia Taiwan and others, Yang had this to say:

“As for the dispute over the sovereignty of some islands and reefs of the Nansha (Spratly) Islands and the overlapping rights, interests, and claims over some waters of the South China Sea, these should be discussed by the directly concerned countries on the basis of the fact – of historical fact and international law, and handled and settled through direct negotiations and friendly consultation.”


Bilateral or Multilateral?

In other words, China was going to deal with its neighbors’ claims in one-on-one bilateral negotiations, not the multilateral talks concept being promoted by the United States. Beijing’s approach, said Yang, was fully in keeping with an existing “declaration of conduct” between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.

During her talks in Beijing, Clinton pushed back, saying the United States believes a more specific “code of conduct” with ASEAN is a better way to resolve the competing claims between China and its neighbors. She hastened to add that Washington was taking no position on the individual territorial claims, just pressing for a negotiating framework.

“Our interest is in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, freedom of navigation, and unimpeded lawful commerce,” Clinton said. “As a friend to the countries involved, we do believe it is in everyone’s interest that China and ASEAN engage in a diplomatic process toward the shared goal of a code of conduct.”

China has been critical of outside — read that U.S. — involvement in the rival maritime claims, saying foreign governments are stoking mistrust and enmity between China and its neighbors. To drive that point home, Clinton was welcomed to Beijing with reports in state-run media that many Chinese don’t like her.

“U.S. power is declining and it hasn’t enough economic strength or resources to dominate the Asia-Pacific region,” the official news agency, Xinhua, said in a commentary.

Yang did promise to “eventually” start talks with ASEAN over a code of conduct. But by agreeing to discuss terms for resolving a dispute, China seemed certain it has already won the argument. The move also put Clinton in the position of having to keep the more belligerent of the rival claimants to South China Sea territory — Vietnam and the Philippines — on board with a multi-lateral ASEAN solution.

China’s claims to the South China Sea cause tensions with Vietnam, the Philippines and other ASEAN members.

Timing is important

Again, the timing of Clinton’s visit — in the middle of a leadership transition — may have contributed to the tone of her reception in China. There are also Beijing’s suspicions about the Obama administration’s greater military and economic involvement in the region — the so-called “Asia Pivot.”

So Clinton faced a steady stream of nationalism from officials apparently auditioning for a role in the new government.

“As for the United States policy towards the Asia Pacific region,” Yang told reporters at the Great Hall of the People, “we have always hoped that the United States would size up the situation and make sure that its policy is in conformity with the trends of our current era and the general wish of countries in the region to seek peace, development, and cooperation.”

Despite her rough reception in Beijing, Clinton says there was an important exchange of views ahead of this week’s summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, this month’s meeting of the U.N. General Assembly and November’s East Asia Summit.

“The United States — certainly I, am not going to shy away from standing up for our strategic interests and expressing clearly where we differ,” Clinton said of the Beijing reception. “The mark of a mature relationship, whether it is between nations or people, is not whether we agree on everything, because that is highly unlikely between nations and people, but whether we can work through the issues that are difficult.”



U.S. And China Soften the Rhetoric

Posted September 3rd, 2012 at 5:47 pm (UTC+0)

Clinton Due in Beijing Ahead of Asia-Pacific Summit

China and the United States are dialing down their rhetorical broadsides over greater U.S. military and economic influence in Asia ahead of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Beijing Tuesday.


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai have met before. They are shown here as Clinton visits Shanghai May 21, 2010. Photo: AP

Washington and Beijing have variously accused each other of trying to manipulate the outcome of competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, especially after Southeast Asian foreign ministers failed to agree on a code of conduct for the dispute in July.

Following that meeting in Phnom Penh, U.S. officials said China used Cambodia to derail the agreement because it prefers to deal with rival claimants one-on-one. And Chinese officials accused Western governments of meddling in the dispute to keep Asia divided.

Leading up to Clinton’s third trip to Asia since May, China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, said the United States is “stirring up disputes” in the region to curb Chinese influence. This was part of Washington’s “surreal ambition of ruling the Asia-Pacific and the world,” according to Xinhua.

But it was a far less antagonistic climate once Clinton arrived in the Cook Islands stop on her Asia tour, with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai saying Beijing is “in this region not to seek any particular influence, still less dominance.”

Good Partners

“We’re here to be a good partner for the island countries, we’re not here to compete with anyone,” he told reporters at the annual meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum. “The thrust of China’s policy toward the Pacific is to achieve peace, stability and development.”

Cui said China is ready to work with other countries, but “it will not mean that China will have to change its foreign aid policy.”

Clinton appeared equally conciliatory, saying the Obama administration believes “it is important for the Pacific Island nations to have good relationships with as many partners as possible, and that includes China as well as the United States.”

“Now I know there are those who see America’s renewed engagements over the last three and a half years in the Pacific perhaps as a hedge against particular countries,” Clinton said. “But the fact is the United States welcomes cooperation with a number of partners, including Japan, the European Union, China, and others. The Pacific is big enough for all of us.”

South China Sea claims

Beijing is increasingly assertive in claiming nearly all of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea, which is thought to hold vast energy deposits and is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei all have competing claims to parts of the sea, which Xinhua says “should become a spot that ties the region together, not one that pulls it apart.”

Given the sensitivity of President Obama’s so-called “Asia Pivot” and the rival South China Sea claims, U.S. officials say they had “very intense consultations” with every key player in the Asia Pacific ahead of this trip.


Clinton talks with Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa during a press conference in Jakarta Sept. 3, a day before she goes to Beijing.

“It is absolutely essential that cooler heads prevail in every capital, and that great care be taken on these issues,” says a senior State Department official. “They have been managed generally effectively for decades. And during this period we’ve seen some of the most manifest Asian prosperity. We need that to continue. This is the cockpit of the global economy, and so care must be taken across the board.”

The senior official says all Asian countries “must find a way to deal with China. It’s not a matter of geo-strategy. It’s a matter of geography. So they do not have a choice in the sense that they must find a way to engage effectively and pragmatically on issues of mutual concern.”

Secretary Clinton says she was looking forward to talks in Beijing about what more China and the the United States can do to further sustainable development.

“We want to see more multinational development projects that include the participation of China,” she says. “We want a comprehensive, positive, cooperative relationship between the United States and China. We think it is good for our country, it’s good for our people, and in fact, it’s not only good for this region, it’s good for the world.”

“We speak very frankly about areas where we do not agree,” she said. “We both raise issues that the other side would prefer perhaps we not, or they not. But I think our dialogue has moved to a positive arena because we are able to discuss all matters together.”

At Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, senior fellow Bonnie Glaser says China and the United States both have an interest in containing arguments over competing territorial claims.

“The U.S. and China continue to try to work together to diffuse tensions, to exchange views on what can be done, to talk about, for example, the content of a code of conduct” over the South China Sea, she says.

“While we can sit on the outside and encourage these countries to take their disputes to an international mediation, ultimately this is only something that the claimants themselves can decide.”


U.S. Concerned About Spillover of Sectarian Violence from Syria to Lebanon

Posted August 30th, 2012 at 9:09 pm (UTC+0)
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Lebanese Army soldiers deploy in a Sunni-dominated neighborhood of Tripoli, Lebanon Aug. 24 to stop clashes between Sunni Muslims and Alawites. Photo: Reuters

May Mean Changes for Hezbollah

What does the spillover of sectarian violence from Syria to Lebanon mean for Hezbollah? And will it lead to broader instability?

Paul Salem, director of Carnegie Endowment Middle East Center’s office in Beirut, believes violence in Sunni and Alawite neighborhoods of Tripoli will continue but is unlikely to spread elsewhere.

“There don’t seem to be currently the makings of a major escalation by the only side that could probably escalate in a dramatic way, which would be the Sunni majority of the city, which would then risk a massacre or something very dramatic,” Salem said.

“I think it will remain within these limits of escalation, then calming down, escalation and then calming down, for the foreseeable future,” he said. “But it’s certainly one of the indications of the inter-connectedness between the crisis in Syria and the situation in Lebanon.”

Many Sunni Lebanese still resent nearly 30 years of Syrian occupation and openly back the mostly-Sunni rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s increasingly-Alawite army.  Lebanon’s Shi’ites and Alawites generally back Assad and his supporters in Syria.

So it doesn’t take much to ignite similar sectarian tensions in Lebanon. This is especially so following the arrest of former parliamentarian Michel Samaha. He’s accused of supplying explosives to kill a Maronite Christian patriarch in a Sunni neighborhood in hopes of igniting Sunni-vs-Christian violence.

“The situation in Lebanon has become more precarious and the need for continued international support to the government and the Lebanese armed forces increasingly important,” Jeffrey Feltman, the U.N. under secretary-general, told the Security Council. “Tensions over domestic and security concerns remain high through the country and are easily exacerbated by developments in Syria.”


U.S. concerned

Sunni militiamen take up positions in Tripoli, Lebanon Aug. 24 during a lull in fighting with Alawites in the city. Photo: Reuters

The Obama administration says it is closely watching the spillover of violence.

“We are obviously trying to be supportive of the Lebanese armed forces as they try to bring order, and consulting with Lebanese colleagues on the situation. But it is extremely concerning,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

At Washington’s Cato Institute, Middle East analyst Malou Innocent said continued violence could not only affect Beirut and Damascus, but hurt Hezbollah.

“Since the 2006 war with Israel, Hezbollah has cobbled together a constituency of support that remains fairly strong,” Innocent said, “but it also could be weakened if we see more violence.

“I think we would see an erosion of political support, especially within the largely-Shi’ite constituency of Hezbollah,” she said. “ It simply gives more credence to the notion that Hezbollah cannot create a great deal of stability within Lebanon.”

So far, Hezbollah leaders have worked hard to stay out of the fray, noticeably by not provoking Israel.

At Lebanon’s American University, political scientist Imad Salamey said Hezbollah’s interests diverge increasingly from those of President Assad’s.

“The decline of Syrian hegemony and the decline of the strategic importance of Syria with respect to other international and regional players such as Russia and Iran may be subsidized by a growing importance of parties like Hezbollah,” Salamey told VOA’s Margaret Besheer. “So Hezbollah wants to preserve that, [it] doesn’t want to be dragged into a domestic conflict and does not want necessarily to follow suit with whatever the Syrians command it to do.”

Salamey says the longer the war in Syria continues “the more extremists will be attracted, the more sectarian orientation this conflict will take on, and, therefore, it will become easier to be expanded and to spill over to other countries.”



Scott Stearns

Scott Stearns

Scott Stearns is VOA’s State Department correspondent. He has worked as VOA’s Dakar Bureau Chief, White House correspondent, and Nairobi Bureau Chief since beginning his career as a freelance reporter in the Liberian civil war. He has written for the BBC, UPI, the Associated Press, The Jerusalem Post, and The Economist. Scott has a Bachelors and Masters in Journalism from Northwestern University.



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