A Tense Week in the South China Sea

This week has seen a number of events connected to territorial disputes in the South China Sea, also known as the West Philippine Sea. With China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia all staking claims in the region, the Sea is no stranger to tense confrontations. This past week was no different, with a string of minor clashes highlighting the sensitive situation in the region.

To provide some background, the South China Sea is located, as the name suggests, to the south of China. Most of the sea, though, is quite far from China and is in fact much closer to other countries in Southeast Asia like Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. The sea is of strategic importance, with many major shipping routes passing through the area. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, half of the world’s oil and gas shipments travel through the sea. And speaking of oil and gas, the sea itself has hugely valuable reserves of both, offering untold economic opportunity to whichever country controls it. Thus competition for control of the area is fierce.

Because international law grants control of the ocean to countries that control nearby land, most of the disputes are focused on atolls in the Spratly and Paracel island chains. Consequently, while it appears that China and Taiwan are nowhere near most of the sea, they justify their claims by asserting sovereignty of some or all of the islands in these chains. China, in an attempt to legitimize its claim to the entire sea, is constructing artificial islands and military installations on shoals in the region. This has provoked ire in the Philippines and Vietnam, who feel threatened by China’s escalating militarism. Thus the political situation in which the events of this week occurred is extremely tense. Now that the extent of the dispute is clear, I will briefly describe each of this week’s occurrences and explain their significance.

Arrests in Indonesia 

Last Saturday, a Chinese trawler was caught fishing off the coast of Indonesia’s Natuna Island, and eight crew members were taken into custody. While very little of Indonesia is located in the South China Sea, Natuna is located in its far southern reaches. According to the Indonesia, a Chinese coast guard vessel attempted to prevent the crew of the trawler from being detained for fishing illegally in Indonesian waters. The Chinese government disputes these claims, saying that the trawler was fishing in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds.” Such a claim is certainly dubious, especially considered that the event occurred, according to The Guardian, only 4.3 kilometers of the coast of Indonesia.

The situation has escalated into a diplomatic spat between the two nations, as Indonesia’s foreign minister called a Chinese diplomat to discuss the issue on Monday. In the days that followed, China has demanded that Indonesia release its citizens and Indonesia has refused, reaffirming that it will prosecute the crew for its activities. An Indonesian official also rebuffed China’s justification of the issue, attacking the notion that “traditional” fishing grounds have any legitimacy in international law. The events of this week have been a turning point for Indonesia policies in the South China Sea, as it has, in the past, kept out of the dispute. But its muscular response to China’s provocations indicate that it is no longer willing to stand by as China expands into Indonesian territory.

Taiping Island

This week also marked a turning point for Taiwan’s claims in the South China Sea. For decades, Taiping Island, the largest island in the Spratly chain, has been administered by Taiwan. But on Wednesday, Taiwan held its first media tour of the island. The purpose of the trip appeared to be an attempt to prove that Taiping is an “island” as opposed to a “rock.” Why is the terminology so important? It comes down to, like most disputes in the region, a combination of competition for resources and the intricacies of international maritime laws.

Besides Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam both lay claim to Taiping and the waters that surround it. In an attempt to get its way, the Philippines has brought a case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, an international body that attempts to settle disputes between nations, that claims Taiping is simply a “rock” rather than an “island.” This distinction is important in international maritime law because of two concepts: “territorial waters” and “Exclusive Economic Zones.” Territorial waters are defined as part of a country’s territory and extend 12 nautical miles into the sea. An Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extends 200 nautical miles from the nearest land, and only that country is allowed to use those waters for economic purposes. A “rock” is entitled to territorial waters but not an EEZ. An “island,” on the other hand, is entitled to both. Thus, because Taiwan wants to be able to claim an EEZ around Taiping Island, it flew the group of journalists there in an attempt to show that it is suitable for human life and is consequently an island rather than a rock.

“100 Chinese Boats”

In another provocative move, China appears to be encroaching on Malaysian territory as well as Indonesian. According to a Malaysian coastguard official, 100 Chinese fishing boats have been detected inside Malaysia’s EEZ. Malaysia has threatened legal action if the boats remain in its EEZ, and it has sent naval vessels to monitor them.

Malaysia’s response is indicative of the general political climate in the South China Sea region. By threatening to take legal action, it is sending a strong message that China’s bullying is becoming increasingly intolerable. But it has not taken, and likely will not take, any decisive actions to remove the Chinese fishing fleet from its waters. This is because China is still the primary trading partner of many countries in Southeast Asia. They know that if they provoke China, they will be suffer more than it will. Thus the countries in the South China Sea region are in a difficult place. On one hand, they cannot upset China so much that they hurt themselves. On the other hand, they cannot simply stand by as China pushes them out of what they are entitled to under international law. It is likely that, due to the challenging position facing these countries, we will see more and more weeks like this one. We will see more and more weeks with numerous confrontations occurring within only a few short days.

Sunday’s Elections in Africa: What Do They Mean?

Sunday was a massive day for African democracy. Presidential elections were held in Benin, Congo, and Niger; a constitutional referendum was held in Senegal; legislative elections were held in Cape Verde; and the Tanzanian semi-autonomous region of Zanzibar held a general election. Many of these elections provide valuable insight into the political situations of their countries, and some may have important long-term effects. It is these ideas that I will summarize for four of these elections: those in Benin, Congo, Niger, and Senegal.


Benin's location in Africa
Benin’s location in Africa

Benin is a small country located along the coast of West Africa. Like many of its neighbors in West Africa, it was for many years a French colony. It became a Marxist-Leninist State after its independence in 1960, but it transitioned to a multi-party democracy in 1990. Since then, it has surpassed most of its neighbors in indices of democracy and governance. According to Freedom House, Benin “remains among the most stable democracies in West Africa” and is one of only 6 countries in sub-saharan Africa ranked as “Free.” In keeping with its rankings, Benin’s incumbent president has respected the country’s constitution and did not run in this election.

The run-off held on Sunday was between a businessman named Patrice Talon and Benin’s incumbent Prime Minister, Lionel Zinsou. Zinsou, a member of the current President’s political party, was seen as the favorite due to his widespread support by the political establishment. Talon, on the other hand, criticized Zinsou’s dual French-Beninese nationality and portrayed himself as more authentic. This man-of-the-people appeal may seem bizarre considering Talon’s immense wealth, but it appears to have worked. He won the run-off by a significant margin.

In the election’s first round, Zinsou had more votes than Talon. This suggests that Talon’s success simply represents a desire in Benin to replace the old administration with a new one. Talon’s business credentials, as well as his harsh criticisms of the economic policies of the current government, likely appeal to a desire for economic change. While it is difficult to tell, at this point, whether that change will come, it is clear that one thing remained the same. Zinsou, upon learning of his defeat, conceded and congratulated his opponent. If Zinsou’s actions are maintained in future governments, it appears that Benin will continue on as one of Africa’s most successful democracies.

Republic of the Congo

Like many nations on the African continent, the Republic of the Congo recently held a constitutional referendum. Passed last year, the new constitution removed the limit of two terms per president and extended it to three terms. This allowed Congo’s incumbent president, Denis Sassou Nguesso, to run for a third term in Sunday’s elections. In passing these constitutional changes, Nguesso is in good company. Quite a few African leaders, in thinly veiled attempts to extend their own time in power, sought to remove term limits in the last few years. In nearly every case, a president who is entrenched enough to amend a constitution is entrenched enough to win the next election.

The Republic of the Congo's location in Africa
The Republic of the Congo’s location in Africa

As far as entrenchment is concerned, Denis Sassou Nguesso is certainly quite deeply embedded in the Congolese political system. He is nearing the end of his second term, having first been elected in 2002. But prior to those elections, he had ruled the country for 5 years during a transitional period following a brief civil war. And prior to that period, he ruled the country from 1979 until his ouster in 1992. Thus, having had plenty of time to consolidate his rule, Nguesso is by far the most formidable politician in Congo.

Nguesso’s power has plenty of irregularities in Sunday’s elections. According to the Wall Street Journal, soldiers were stationed near polling stations and the government cut off access to cellphone and internet service in the days before the election. These displays of power further indicate Nguesso’s entrenchment, which seemed to be reflected in preliminary results. These show a victory for Nguesso by a large margin, a result that is not at all surprising in a country that is far closer to a dictatorship than it is to a democracy.


Niger's location in Africa
Niger’s location in Africa

Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world. Much of its land is covered by the Sahara desert, and the rest by the Sahel grasslands. With the threat of Al-Qaeda militants in the Sahara and Boko Haram militants just over the border in Nigeria, it is in a precarious position. Yet despite its unstable situation, Niger has, in terms of governance, improved in the last few years. Since a coup d’etat in 2010 overthrew a leader who, like Nguesso in Congo, tried to extend his time in power, Niger has seen improvements in civil liberties and electoral processes. Yet in a country as poor and undeveloped as Niger, immense challenges still remain.

One such challenge is corruption and abuse of power. These issues run so deep in Niger that one of the two candidates in Niger’s run-off election, Hama Amadou, was running from prison. Amadou ran against Mahamadou Issoufou, Niger’s current president. But considering Amadou’s imprisonment–and also considering that he is currently hospitalized–the opposition called for a boycott of Sunday’s election. As a result, Issoufou was practically handed a second term. This election demonstrates Niger’s strengths and weaknesses. Unlike Congo, it has managed to improve its political system over the past few years. But the drama surrounding Amadou indicates that Niger’s democratic institutions, like many aspects of the country, are far from stable.


Unlike the other countries that went to the polls on Sunday, Senegal did not hold a presidential election. Instead, it held a constitutional referendum. Yet this constitutional referendum quite unlike the one in Congo that has become common across Africa. Rather than extend the maximum term length of the president, it sought to shorten it. It also, among other things, granted constitutional recognition to opposition leaders. Thus the referendum in Senegal sought, quite contrarily to recent trends in Africa, to strengthen the country’s democracy rather than the position of its leader.

Senegal's location in Africa
Senegal’s location in Africa

Like Benin, Senegal is already one of the few African countries to be rated as “free” by Freedom House. This referendum–which was proposed by Senegal’s current president Macky Sall–may bolster Senegal’s international image as a stable democracy. But critics of referendum argue that the constitutional changes will have little effect on democracy and are simply a political tool employed by Sall to increase his popularity. Regardless of the motivations for this referendum, it will certainly do no harm to Senegal’s democracy. The results of the referendum–an approval of the changes by a healthy majority–will consequently have a positive effect on Senegal’s reputation as a strong democracy. With most constitutional referendums in Africa having the opposite effect, the result of changes in Senegal are a refreshing development.


The elections on Sunday reflect the diversity of Africa’s political systems. In Benin and Senegal, the strength of democratic institutions succeeded in giving citizens a certain level of control over their own futures. In Niger, the challenges faced by many developing countries manifested themselves in a free but flawed election. In Congo, the citizens had little say as an old autocrat further consolidated his power. All across Africa, there are countries like these. There are both developing democracies and brutal dictatorships. Sunday was special because it allowed us a glimpse into examples of many of these different political systems.

Blatant Corruption in Brazil Provokes Mass Protests

Regardless of where you are in São Paulo, you can hear them. All across this city of 20 million people, a palpable tension hangs in the air as the sound of discontent reverberates through the sky. It is called a Panelaço, and it is one of the most common forms of protest in Brazil. Whenever the president makes a speech, the people react. They open their doors and windows, bang pots and pans together, honk their horns, and flicker their lights on and off. It is quite a spectacle to behold, and it is representative of the massive frustration that tens of millions of Brazilians feel towards their government.

São Paulo: Brazil’s commercial center and largest city

To provide some context, these past few days have seen important developments in the corruption scandal that is rocking Brazil’s government to its foundations. Earlier this week, Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, appointed Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as her Chief of State. In response, millions of Brazilians all across the country took to the streets in protest. Why, you may be wondering, did such a seemingly insignificant act provoke such furor? Well, to answer that question, there are a few things you need to know about Dilma and Lula.

First, it should be noted that Lula was the president of Brazil before Dilma, his close ally, succeeded him. He is widely considered the most influential politician in Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT), of which Dilma is also a member. As a left-wing party, Lula and the PT were immensely popular due to their social welfare policies aimed toward helping the poor. But today, PT’s reputation is tarnished. A corruption scandal involving Petrobras, the state oil company of Brazil, has ripped through the party. Billions of dollars disappeared while Dilma was the chairwoman of the company, and very powerful politicians and businessmen have been swept up in the case. Impeachment proceedings are underway against Dilma, and many of PT’s most influential politicians have been taken down by Sérgio Moro, the federal judge leading the investigation into the scandal.

A few weeks ago, Lula was the latest high-profile politician to be implicated in the scandal. His home was raided; he was taken into custody; and he was questioned by federal police. While he wasn’t charged, frustrated Brazilians have their suspicions. And if they weren’t suspicious before, Dilma just gave them a huge reason to question the integrity of both herself and Lula: her appointment of Lula as her Chief of Staff.

As a cabinet member, the Chief of Staff cannot be prosecuted by a federal court or by Moro. Instead, they are only allowed to be be prosecuted in the Supreme Court. Seems fair enough, except Supreme Court judges are appointed by the president. As a result, judges appointed by Lula and Dilma form a majority in the Supreme Court, making any real punishment unlikely. This is why Brazilians took to the street in anger. What Dilma claimed was simply a move to strengthen her government was interpreted by many of the citizens of Brazil as an attempt to shield Lula from the onslaught of the corruption investigation.

As of now, Lula’s appointment has been suspended by an injunction from a federal judge. Thus he is not shielded from investigation by federal courts. Nevertheless, a long legal battle is likely to ensue as Dilma has said she will appeal the decision. And quite a bit of damage is already done. While protests have been a regular occurrence in Brazil since Dilma’s re-election in 2014, the events of this week have renewed and invigorated them.

This year has been a tumultuous one in Brazil. While the corruption scandal is one of the primary complaints Brazilians have about their government, it has coincided with a sharp economic downturn. Brazil has entered its worst recession in decades; inflation has risen sharply; and its currency has lost half of its value against the dollar. After years of economic growth, things are looking down. So the sound of pots and pans banging together periodically rings through the air.

Perhaps, though, there is a silver lining to the tumult. Brazilians are demanding accountability and change. They are no longer willing to stand idly by as their government steals from them. Corruption is finally being challenged from the inside, and Moro has shown that he is not afraid to go after the big names. The scandal has ripped through the government like a wildfire. So while the next few years will be difficult for Brazil, the country may, like a forest, need a fire to clear the old and make way for the new.


An Empty Promise in Angola

Angola’s president, José Eduardo dos Santos, dropped a bombshell on Friday when he announced his intentions to retire from politics in 2018. As Africa’s second longest ruling leader–he took office only a month after Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in 1979–his exit would mark a departure from what appears to be a trend of African leaders attempting to extend their tenures. But while the exit of an entrenched leader may seem promising for a country crippled by corruption, it is unlikely that his retirement would solve any of the systemic problems facing Angola’s political system.

While dos Santos has ruled Angola since 1979, it has only been in this millennium that has consolidated his control over the entire country. Angola, located along the southwest coast of Africa, was once a colony of Portugal. After its independence in 1975, the groups that had been fighting against Portugal turned against each other to fight for control of the country. It was the marxist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) that formed Angola’s government, but it failed to stamp out the civil war driven by the various other armed groups. Eventually morphing into a proxy of the cold war involving the United States, Soviet Union, Cuba, South Africa, and others, the war did not end until 2002 when the main rebel group, UNITA, demobilized its armed forces following the death of its leader. The 27 years of civil war ravaged the Angola, leaving millions of internally displaced persons and destroying crucial infrastructure built by the Portuguese.

Angola's location in Africa
Angola’s location in Africa

Since then, the country has been transformed. Rich in natural resources, its oil-driven economy has taken off and its GDP has grown immensely. Yet little of the economic progress has translated into higher living standards. Instead, it has translated to billions of dollars in the pockets of Angola’s leaders. Dos Santos is Africa’s richest leader, with an estimated wealth of 20 billion dollars. His daughter, with extensive business interests and a net worth of 3.8 billion dollars, is Africa’s richest woman and the world’s richest black woman. Thus Angola is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and its corruption has been a significant hindrance to development. Its are clear considering the vast gap between wealth of Angola’s leaders and the abject poverty of the majority of the population. And although a new leader may seem like a possible remedy to this problem, any change is unlikely to be revolutionary.

Dos Santos has shown himself to be an absolute ruler rather than a president. Angola has not held multiparty elections since it moved away from communism in 1992, and elections scheduled for 2014 were postponed to 2017 on the orders of dos Santos. As president, he is the head of the executive branch of government and the military. The legislature is weak and opposition parties even weaker. Dos Santos also appoints the country’s judges. His daughter, Isabel dos Santos, is one of the Angola’s most influential investors. The country’s largest oil company, Sonangol Group, is state-owned. As a result, dos Santos and his family control most aspects of Angola’s political and business establishment.

Because he has such far reaching power and interests, dos Santos’ is unlikely to go gently into the night come 2018. His promise to retire is hardly a promise to bring an end to Angola’s crushing corruption. The fact that he has already promised to exit the political scene before–in 2001–brings into question whether he will even live up to this promise. But even if he does, the transition will likely install one of dos Santos’ family members or close aides in power. In a country where there is no new guard to replace the old, it is nearly inevitable that the locus of power will simply shift from one member of the corrupt elite to another.