Monthly Risk Spotlight: April

Author: On Call International’s Global Security Team

On Call International’s Monthly Risk Spotlight highlights events of heightened importance in assessing risk to travel and operations abroad.

Asia Pacific

Taiwan: Cross-Strait Relations and National Identity to be Central Themes in the Run-Up to Presidential Elections

On March 18, a vocal proponent of Taiwan’s independence, Lai Ching-te, announced his intention of challenging the incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen for the nomination of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). His candidacy is likely to bring the issue of legal independence of Taiwan to the center stage in the run-up to Presidential elections in 2020. In the backdrop of increasing Chinese push for ‘unification,’ this is likely to create sharp fault lines within and between the political parties.

The DPP, which won a landslide victory in 2016, officially supports Taiwan’s independence from China. However, maintenance of the status-quo by Tsai to avoid provoking the Communist Party of China has led to opposition by members who want a more decisive break from the mainland. In the local elections in November 2018, DPP lost several counties to the more China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), leading China to term this as a rejection of the DPP’s ‘de-Sinicization’ political ideal. However, analysts opine that domestic factors played as important a role as cross-Strait ones in these elections.

Since then, Tsai has regained some ground, especially with her intense response to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s January 2019 speech warning that any talk of independence would be grounds for invasion. However, polls show that Tsai’s approval rating is down by almost 30% against potential KMT presidential nominee Eric Chu. The more pro-independence New Power Party (NPP), despite significant gains in the last five years, remains a small party. There is also evidence that the Taiwanese people are tired of the Blue-Green (pro-China vs. separate Taiwanese identity) ideological divide, and there is increasing space for populist politicians.

These electoral developments and fault lines on the handling of cross-Strait relations are likely to bring the focus back to the issue of Taiwanese identity. A poll in October 2018 by Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council found that 23% of people support formal independence, while 19% support unification. The majority is in favor of maintaining the status quo. However, a more recent survey conducted by a polling center in National Chengchu University in Taiwan found that, if pushed into a conflict with China, a significant portion of the public in Taiwan is willing to bear the battle cost.

The findings are significant, especially as China steps up pressure on Taiwan to start a unification dialogue. Since 2016, the Chinese military has conducted large-scale exercises around Taiwan. The Chinese government has induced several countries to switch diplomatic sides from Taiwan to China through trade and aid policies. After Xi’s January speech, the Taiwan military responded with anti-invasion drills and a massive show of strength. Taiwan’s ally, the U.S., has also increased its ‘freedom of navigation’ operations in the Taiwan strait, along with more open contacts and planned arms deals with Taiwan. While China is unlikely to cross the ‘red line’ in terms of using military force against Taiwan, tensions are likely to increase under the DPP government. In the long run, China’s policy toward Taiwan will be determined by the orientation of the next administration and its capability to balance ties with the U.S. and China.

Middle East

Israel: Corruption Charges Against Prime Minister Netanyahu Can Impact His Re-election Prospects

According to a statement released by Israel’s Ministry of Justice on March 11, Attorney General Mandelblit has agreed to withhold evidence of Prime Minister (PM) Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption until after the elections. This pronouncement is likely to come as a relief for the four-time PM Netanyahu, who is facing one of the toughest Knesset elections of his political career, slated to be held on April 9. Charges of corruption and bribery levied by Mandelblit against the PM and his family, and a new centrist party, are challenging the fortunes of his Likud party. While his voter base remains strong, these developments can put pressure on his coalition partners to take a stand.

In late February 2019, the Attorney General had announced that PM Netanyahu would be indicted on bribery and corruption charges from three separate corruption investigations, pending a hearing. Coming so close to April 9, these developments can have a significant impact on the Israeli elections. For one, it gives ammunition to the centrist coalition Blue and White Party to target the PM. The Blue and White Party formed by a merger of three parties – Israel Resilience Party, Yesh Atid Party, and Telem Party – has consistently polled equal to and, in some cases, more than the Likud party. Netanyahu has also made these charges an election issue, claiming ‘witch-hunt’ by the opposition parties, media, and his critics on the left.

The announcement of Mandelbilt’s intention to indict the PM after a year-long investigation had caused a sharp drop in the polls for Likud, with the party trailing behind the main opposition for the first time. However, the situation has stabilized since then. Until now, Likud’s coalition partners have supported Netanyahu, mainly to avoid upsetting their joint right-wing support base. Madelblit’s recent decision to withhold evidence is further likely to boost the perception that the investigations are politically-motivated.

With the two main parties – Likud and Blue and White – neck-and-neck in the upcoming elections, it looks difficult that either of them will be able to form a governing coalition with any likely combination of minor parties, especially since the Arab parties are unlikely to join any coalition government. One of the post-election scenarios could be a ‘national unity’ government made up of Likud and the Blue and White Party. The main point here will be who ends up leading this government or who is chosen by the coalition partners to be the next PM – Netanyahu or Benny Gantz of the Israel Resilience Party. Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious bloc has more potential voters, and his key right-wing coalition partners have, until now, stood by him. In addition, actions of U.S. President Donald Trump, including recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Golan heights, is likely to boost Netanyahu’s nationalist credentials. However, the corruption charges might make Netanyahu a liability, forcing his party and the coalition partners to choose a new leader.

Europe/Central Asia

Europe: Is the EU Approach to Control its Refugee and Migrant Crisis Successful?

In March 2018, the European Union ran an advertising campaign focusing on the steps it has taken to control the refugee and migrant crisis of 2015-16. According to official reports, the number of refugees and migrants to the EU have significantly dropped from their peak of more than 1.8 million in 2015-16. However, international NGOs have questioned the efficacy of the measures adopted, stating they do not address the structural issues – including conflict, persecution, and economic deprivation in Africa and the Middle East. In the absence of a consensus within the EU countries on addressing these causes, it is likely only a matter of time before the numbers pick up again.

Since the 2015 crisis, the EU has taken steps to halt migration, particularly from Africa, all along the journey. One set of actions includes electronic surveillance of North African borders, prosecution of people helping asylum-seekers, and shut down of search-and-rescue NGOs in the Mediterranean. Another strategy has focused on pumping money and technical aid into the states along Africa’s main migrant corridors so people do not want to leave for a better life. In addition, the 2016 EU deal with Turkey and the 2017 bilateral arrangement backed with Italy and Libya has helped curtail the flow.

However, international observers and NGOs have pointed out the flaws in the steps taken and their problematic implementation.

  • According to experts, the EU’s development assistance could take a long time to bring the mismanaged African economies to a level where migration will be curtailed. In the short term, the EU has been forced to partner with and disburse funds to unreliable actors – despots, local militias, and smugglers – to contain migration. In countries like Sudan, this has encouraged abuse and torture by the anti-democratic government, creating the worry of further destabilization of the region.
  • EU efforts at border control have only temporarily brought down numbers as people are being forced to look for new, riskier routes. For example, in 2014 and 2015, refugees and migrants arriving in the EU entered Greece from Turkey, using a much shorter sea route, while since 2016, that has been replaced by a longer and more dangerous way – to Italy from Libya. There was also an increase in the number of deaths of people trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2018.
  • While the conflict in Syria and Iraq has abated with the reclaiming of the ISIL-held territories, a recent report by U.S. Central Command stated if all stakeholders do not address the deprivation and grievances in these countries, it might create conditions for resurgence of ISIL.

Given the above conditions, there is a need for the EU to take a longer-term and holistic approach – both in terms of stemming the migrant flow and fair re-distribution across the EU countries. However, given the rise of the right wing, anti-immigration parties in Germany and France, and governments in Hungary and Italy that have closed down their borders, any solution to the refugee crisis is unlikely in the short term.


Brazil: Violence Impacting the Country’s Internal Security and Economic Progress

Since the beginning of 2019, northeastern Brazil has been facing extensive gang-related violence. Three rival gangs have perpetrated the attacks in response to the state government’s proposal of changing the age-old practice of keeping together the gang members of one particular group in the same prison. This means the prisoners would be sent to whichever prison can hold them, rather than housing the members together according to the gang affiliation, to diminish their power. Many parts of Brazil, especially the state of Ceara, have witnessed violent activities such as blowing up a telephone exchange that rendered 12 cities without mobile service, and attacking important buildings and banks with grenades and petrol bombs. On March 20, gunmen attacked a convoy of nuclear fuel in Angra dos Reis near Rio de Janeiro. The convoy came under attack as it passed an area under the control of drug traffickers.

Fortaleza (capital of Ceara) and other northeastern cities of Brazil have seen a surge of gang violence over the past few years. This is due to intergang rivalry – First Capital Command (PCC) from Sau Paulo and Red Command from Rio – beginning to enter the region, thus leading to violence with the Fortaleza-based Guardians of the State and the Northern Family of Amazonas sState. Additionally, there are heightened tensions between the PCC and Red Command since each wants to control the drugs trade in Brazil. To achieve this, either of the gangs will need to control the strategic Fortaleza, since it is the closest port to Europe and Africa.

At the height of the increasing violence, Jair Bolsonaro came to power in January 2019 with proposals of gun ownership, passing a bill to provide freedom from prosecution while on duty to the police and security forces, and encouraging police for extrajudicial killings. A former army captain and a supporter of the military dictatorship, Bolsonaro had promised to design a comprehensive federal security strategy to end violence in Brazil. Critics have pointed out that Bolsonaro has not yet provided any concrete steps to end violence in the country. In fact, the absence of a practical strategy combined with incendiary rhetoric has aggravated the violence in the country. The inability of the state governments to deal with the crime is likely to lead to an increase in the federal government’s interference under Bolsonaro.

Human rights violations have also been on the rise in Brazil, especially with the police carrying out the orders of shooting anyone with a gun. In February, 13 people were reportedly killed by the police – some were drug gang members but had surrendered, and others were innocent citizens. Reports surfaced of police torture, which has worsened the situation. The security problems have impacted Brazil’s image as a tourist destination, increasing job losses and diminishing investments in the sector. With widespread violence, companies operating in Brazil have to cope with business disruptions, as well as threats to their assets and people.


Algeria: The Current Political Stalemate Poses Security Risks to Algeria

In February, Algeria’s 82-year old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced he would contest elections for his fifth term, after a regime spanning 20 years. Soon after, the country witnessed protests that have been termed the ‘Smile Revolution,’ forcing Bouteflika to take a U-turn and promise not to contest the upcoming elections. However, he simultaneously postponed the elections scheduled for April 18. He also announced that he would stay in office beyond his end of tenure on April 27. In all likelihood, he plans to oversee various political, constitutional, and economic reforms before the new president takes over -the timeline for which is still unknown. This decision has had two opposing reactions – one from Russia and the other from the locals of Algeria.

Russia, one of Algeria’s closest allies and supplier of arms, supported Bouteflika’s decision of holding presidential elections after a new constitution is ratified. However, increasing protests have concerned Russia, which has stated that some other foreign nation is instigating these. This Russian stand has negated the very premise of the protests Algeria has been witnessing over the past month.

On the other hand, Bouteflika’s decision of not contesting elections was met with euphoria in Algeria. However, when he clarified that he would be staying beyond his tenure, albeit not as the president, it instigated a wave of renewed street protests under the patronage of a group called National Coordination for Change. This organization comprises Bouteflika critics, human rights activists, lawyers, a former minister, and a few members of a banned Islamist party. The group demands Bouteflika leave immediately on the grounds of increasing unemployment, corruption, and low economic growth – instead passing on the power to a temporary presidential council to keep military control away from the political sphere.

In another development on March 20, the Army Chief and the ruling party, National Liberation Front (FLN), stated that they support the street protests calling out for development and the end of Bouteflika’s regime. Ironically, all along FLN had supported the ailing Bouteflika – in his quest for a fifth term – even though he has been restricted to a wheelchair after suffering a stroke about six years ago. Change in FLN’s decision came after both the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA) and Business Leader Forum – the two pillars of the government – witnessed increased resignations against their leaders supporting Bouteflika’s fifth term.

The dissent in the pro-regime ranks is indicative of the fact that Bouteflika’s regime may be nearing an end. However, Bouteflika’s decision of staying in power until a new president is elected, and the continuing political unrest in the country, could create turmoil in Algeria’s social and economic spheres. Until Bouteflika provides a clear mandate and decision regarding his transfer of power to the new president, Algeria’s political future will continue to be uncertain.

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