Power shortages across Myanmar are contributing to small-scale demonstrations throughout the country, according to a report in The New York Times on Sunday. “Numerous small protests have arisen in Myanmar over persistent power shortages as the past year’s democratic reforms have led to rising expectations from a long-suppressed population,” the report said. “Demonstrations in the past week in Myanmar’s two largest cities and several towns could be seen as an indicator of the new openness under President Thein Sein, who has overseen the country’s emergence from decades of authoritarian rule.”
Despite Myanmar’s abundance of energy resources –particularly natural gas – the country suffers from major infrastructure challenges that could slow the country’s economic growth. “A poor power distribution infrastructure has lagged even more as the economy has grown,” according to The New York Times. Consequently, this poor infrastructure could constrain the country’s expected growth as the government continues to enact political reforms that encourage Western governments to ease economic sanctions and give rise to foreign direct investment in nascent industries, including in oil and natural gas production.
Moreover, political protests could potentially spook the government as it continues to gradually enact political forms. Although the demonstrations over power shortages are still small and rather peaceful – with the largest demonstrations including only between 200 and 300 protestors – the government is likely to keep a watchful eye as these and other political demonstrations develop over concerns that the country’s gradual political opening could embolden opposition groups and threaten the military establishment and long-time authoritarian leaders. “The most recent uprising, led by monks in 2007, began as small protests over fuel price increases,” The New York Times added, suggesting that there is a recent history of political demonstrations escalating beyond a point that the government finds acceptable. Although there is little to suggest that these protests will escalate and prompt a response from the government, the challenges over energy infrastructure are likely to be a defining feature of the political and economic landscape in Myanmar in the years ahead.
Afghan poppy production is on the rise in some areas and may indicate backsliding in crucial provinces that have seen security gains in recent years. According to a report from McClatchy on Saturday, Nangarhar province has been heralded by U.S. and Afghan officials as a success story in recent years due to the successful routing of Taliban insurgents and near-eradication of poppy crops that dominated the province. Nangarhar, a major financial and political hub, has carried strategic significance for U.S. and coalition forces, according to the McClatchy report: “The province controls the centuries-old trade – and invasion – corridor that runs from Pakistan’s port of Karachi through the fabled Khyber Pass to Kabul, and north to Central Asia.”
The successful counterinsurgency and poppy eradication efforts there provided U.S. and Afghan officials with a success story that they believed could also be used as a model for the other 33 Afghan provinces. However, the success in Nangarhar appears to be short lived.
“The tide has since turned,” McClatchy reported on Saturday. “Poppy growing is rising, as is support for the insurgency, fueled in part by a harsh government poppy-eradication drive that’s sparked clashes and led some farmers to sow land mines. Many people fear that one of the most crucial provinces will only slip deeper into bloodshed and corruption as U.S. troops withdraw.”
The growth in poppy production also bodes poorly for other U.S. and international development projects that have sought to wean Afghan farmers off a dependence on poppy in lieu of food crops that could help feed famished Afghans. Poppy remains a valuable cash crop, even more so after a 2010 decline in opium production, largely resulting for a disease that attacked poppy crops. According to McClatchy, before 2010, opium sold for approximately US$165 per kilogram. Now it earns farmers as much as US$400 per kilogram.
The Philippines announced on Sunday (Monday in Manila) that it will ignore China’s fishing ban near the disputed Scarborough Shoal that is set to begin on May 16 and run through August 1. “DFA [Department of Foreign Affairs] Secretary Albert del Rosario explained the Philippines will not follow the ban because it has sovereign rights over a portion of the waters where China plans to impose the ban,” according to ABS-CBSNews.com. “However, del Rosario said the Philippines may also impose a similar ban given the depletion of marine resources in its territorial waters.”
China’s announced fishing ban comes as Filipino and Chinese vessels remain in a standoff near the Scarborough Shoal, approximately 120-natutical miles off the Philippine island Luzon. “The stand-off erupted last month after Philippine authorities detected Chinese ships fishing near the Scarborough Shoal,” the Bangkok Post reported. “The two nations have stationed non-military vessels at the shoal since April 8 in an effort to assert their sovereignty over the area.” The standoff has elicited emotional protests in Manila as well as in Beijing.
Although the Philippines announced it would not abide by China’s fishing ban, Manila expressed a desire to find a peaceful resolution to the ongoing dispute, according to reports. “Despite the pronouncement of resistance against the ban, DFA spokesperson Raul Fernandez said the Philippines is still willing to hold diplomatic talks with the Chinese government to settle the dispute, which has been running for over a month.” Moreover, according to one expert writing in the Asia Times Online, “Even as the rhetoric escalates, moves are being made for economic integration and mutual-benefit.”
Nevertheless, U.S. policymakers charged with managing tensions in the region will remain watchful of developments as they unfold. The recent spat between China and the Philippines also comes on the heels of China’s announcement last week of a technological breakthrough in deep-sea drilling, which may help put China in a position to exploit deep-sea hydrocarbons in contested areas of the South China Sea.
Japanese officials shutdown the last of 50 nuclear reactors late Saturday evening, taking the country off of nuclear power for the first time in more than four decades. Most of Japan’s nuclear reactors will remain idle for the foreseeable future as they undergo stress tests to determine their ability to stand up against a major disaster, a measure introduced after the March 2011 triple disaster that crippled the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant and left the country’s nuclear-power future in a tailspin.
Japanese officials remain concerned that the country could experience electricity shortages during the peak summer months without nuclear power, which previously provided approximately 30 percent of Japan’s total electricity demand. A panel of experts reported to Japanese policymakers in April that nine utilities could see electricity shortfalls in August. As a result, Japanese officials may power up two reactors during the summer in order to meet electricity demand. The Japanese Times reports that “Last month, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and key members of his Cabinet decided that firing up the No. 3 and 4 reactors at the Oi power station is essential to ensure a stable supply of electricity in the Kansai region in summertime,” even as the country continues to reduce its reliance on nuclear power. It is not clear if those two reactors will be back online by the summer.
The U.S. Navy does not have the assets it needs to conduct long-term Arctic maritime operations and will have to increasingly rely on the U.S. Coast Guard or international partners in order to accomplish its missions, according to a Sunday report in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
According to the report, the U.S. Navy asked the U.S. Naval War College to conduct a war game in September 2011 to explore what the U.S. Navy would need to execute long-term missions in the High North. “We looked at search and rescue, oil spill response, maritime domain and maritime safety and security issues," Walter Berbrick, assistant research professor in the War Gaming Department at the Center for Naval Warfare Studies, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “They were all fictional scenarios.”
The war game’s conclusions, according to the report, may suggest looming challenges for America’s ability to project power and protect its interests in the Arctic. According to the report:
[T]he Navy is not adequately prepared to conduct long-term maritime Arctic operations; Arctic weather conditions increase the risk of failure; and most critically, to operate in the Arctic, the Navy will need to lean on the U.S. Coast Guard, countries like Russia or Canada, or tribal and industrial partners.
To sustain operations in the Arctic, the Navy needs ice-capable equipment, accurate and timely environmental data, personnel trained to operate in extreme weather, and better communications systems. Much of the environmental data will come from other Arctic nations.
The report particularly notes the U.S. Navy’s lack of ice-capable ships. “We have limited capability to sustain long-term operations in the Arctic due to inadequate icebreaking capability," Berbrick told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. "The Navy finds itself entering a new realm as it relates to having to rely on other nations." Interestingly, the report also notes that the Navy (in large part because of its lack of ice-capable ships) will increasingly work with the U.S. Coast Guard, which has had a greater presence in the region as of late. Yet the U.S. Coast Guard’s missions in the Arctic are also undermined by its inadequate icebreaking capability – although there is renewed interest in expanding the U.S. Coast Guard’s icebreaking fleet, which now consists of one active and two inactive vessels.
The South China Sea dispute is once again in the headlines, with notable developments that are raising some concerns about increased tensions in the region. On Saturday, Reuters reported that the Chinese military issued the sternest warning to date regarding U.S. military involvement in the territorial dispute, in part due to combined exercises with the Philippine military. “China's official Liberation Army Daily warned that recent jostling with the Philippines over disputed seas where both countries have sent ships could boil over into outright conflict, and laid much of the blame at Washington's door,” the Reuters report stated, adding:
‘Anyone with clear eyes saw long ago that behind these drills is reflected a mentality that will lead the South China Sea issue down a fork in the road towards military confrontation and resolution through armed force,’ said the commentary in the Chinese paper, which is the chief mouthpiece of the People's Liberation Army.
‘Through this kind of meddling and intervention, the United States will only stir up the entire South China Sea situation towards increasing chaos, and this will inevitably have a massive impact on regional peace and stability.’
On Sunday, Commander of the U.S. Marines in the Pacific Lieutenant General Duane Thiessen reiterated the United States’ defense commitment to the Philippines. In a statement to reporters on Palawan Island, Lieutenant General Thiessen said, “The United States and the Philippines have a mutual defense treaty which guarantees that we get involved in each other's defense and that is self explanatory,” according to a report by ABS-CBSNews.com.
This weekend’s news highlighted several ongoing territorial disputes across the Indo-Pacific region, from resource-rich Kashmir to the potentially hydrocarbon-rich South China Sea.
On the far West of the Indo-Pacific, The New York Times published a report on Sunday drawing attention to the Siachen Glacier and the intractable territorial dispute between Indian and Pakistan over Kashmir. The report comes on the heels of an avalanche last week that buried 138 Pakistani soldiers and civilians. “In outposts up to 22,000 feet above sea level, the temperature can plunge to 58 below, and linger there for months,” The New York Times reported. “Patrolling soldiers tumble into yawning crevasses. Frostbite chews through unprotected flesh. Blizzards blow, weapons seize up and even simple body functions become intolerable.” Indeed, what makes the Siachen Glacier noteworthy is not that it is the world’s highest battlefield, per se – it is that the conflict there is more a fight “against the mountain, not the man,” The New York Times reported.
The New York Times reported yesterday that China is increasing its economic ties with the Caribbean, raising concerns among some U.S. diplomats and others that Beijing may be encroaching in a region of the world where Washington’s influence has waned in recent years. “Most analysts do not see a security threat, noting that the Chinese are not building bases or forging any military ties that could invoke fears of another Cuban missile crisis,” the report stated. “But they do see an emerging superpower securing economic inroads and political support from a bloc of developing countries with anemic budgets that once counted almost exclusively on the United States, Canada and Europe.”
Unlike in Africa and South America where Beijing’s activities have focused largely on securing access to raw materials like fisheries and minerals needed to sustain China’s strong economic growth, Beijing’s “presence in the Caribbean derives mainly from long-term economic ventures, like tourism and loans, and potential new allies that are inexpensive to win over, analysts say.” China has also taken steps to position itself as a credible international partner in support of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions in a region of the world prone to catastrophic hurricanes and other destabilizing events. In the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, for example, China deployed search-and-rescue personnel, medical teams, seismological experts and tons of emergency supplies.
The Indonesian government retreated from a planned increase in government-subsidized fuel prices on Saturday due to widespread protests that caused the government coalition that initially backed the plan to fracture. Indonesians have long enjoyed subsidized fuel prices, with gasoline prices at about US$2 a gallon. More than 10,000 demonstrators gathered around parliament to protest the legislation during parliamentary debate, with police reportedly firing tear gas and using water cannons to disperse the crowd.
Failing to increase fuel prices could potentially have a wide political reach as the Indonesian government struggles to rein in a ballooning budget that could stall the country’s economic growth. “The subsidies accounted for 20 per cent of government total spending last year, and analysts have said that cutting is needed if the government wants to limit its deficit and make room for investing in long-term growth projects,” The Financial Times reported on Saturday. “The country's fuel-subsidy bill has ballooned to more than $15 billion a year and could climb to close to $30 billion as global oil prices have been rising this year,” The Wall Street Journal added on Sunday. “The amount of money Indonesia spends to keep petroleum prices low is more than 15% of the country's budget and more than it spends on its military or its infrastructure.” What is more, the failure to pass the legislation could portend a difficult political future for Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. According to The Wall Street Journal, “His inability to control his coalition and get the original plan passed could not only trigger a bigger budget deficit for Indonesia, analysts said, but it could also signal a political deadlock that could hurt future policy making.”
U.S. policymakers and military officials are giving the Arctic some more attention.
On Saturday, The Navy Times reported on the Coast Guard’s request to Congress to purchase a new heavy-icebreaker to bolster the U.S. presence in the Arctic. “Rising global temperatures and melting sea ice are opening the Arctic as a new frontier for research, travel and oil drilling — and creating more area for the Coast Guard to patrol,” the report said. “To keep up, the Coast Guard is asking for $8 million in the fiscal 2013 budget to begin procurement of a new large icebreaker.” The total cost of the icebreaker is projected around $860 million. The initial $8 million is to, as the report notes, get the procurement process started.
The U.S. Coast Guard currently lacks the icebreaking capability it needs to secure U.S. interests in the Arctic. “Neither of the U.S.’s two heavy-duty Polar-class icebreakers is in service. The Polar Star is awaiting a $57 million upgrade set to be finished in December. Its sister ship, Polar Sea, has been docked in Seattle since 2010 with engine issues,” The Navy Times said. “The medium-duty polar icebreaker Healy is designed for research and cannot cut through the thickest ice.”