World Review: Coups, budget, Brexit, hypersonic China, dictatorships and weaponizing energy

This year the world seems to be suffering from a pandemic of coups. Myanmar, Guinea, Mali, Chad Ethiopia (although technically it is a civil war) and now Sudan. There were also attempted coups in Madagascar and the Central African Republic. It is not surprising. The combined forces of covid-19, Jihadism and long-standing ethnic divisions are taking their toll and the first victims are almost always the poorest countries. Sudan is a prime example. The per capita income is just under $4,000 a year. It ranks 181 out of 225 countries in the wealth stakes. In Sudan’s case neither covid nor Jihadism appear to have played a direct role in the military power grab, although both contributed to general dissatisfaction. It seems, however, the prime driver was good old fashioned greed coupled with fear and a hunger for power. For the past two years the country had been in a political transitional period following the removal of Omar al-Bashiri. The military was gradually returning control to civilians, in particular to Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. But according to the military, problems arose when competing civilian politicians tried to develop individual power bases within the army, thus raising the spectre of civil war. Their argument carries little weight with either Washington or Brussels, both of whom have cut off aid to Sudan. The Western capitals are concerned about Sudanese developments because of the danger of the civil war in neighbouring Ethiopia spreading into a destabilised Sudan and the combined problems of the two countries destabilising the upper reaches of the Nile River basin and the Horn of Africa.

It is the two Bs in Britain this week: Budget and Brexit. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak told the nation it was marching towards the sunlit uplands under his economic guidance. Then the respected Institute of Fiscal Studies reported that thanks to the chancellor’s guidance Britain is digging itself deeper into a financial slough of despond. On Brexit, the problems over fishing rights in the English Channel and the Northern Ireland Protocol are coming to a head. The French ambassador in London was summoned to the Foreign Office to hear a protest about French threats to ban British trawlers from French ports and block energy supplies. At the same time, continuing disputes over the Northern Ireland Protocol are reported to be pushing PM Boris Johnson and Brexit negotiator Lord Frost closer to imposing Article 16. Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron are meeting this weekend in the margins of the Rome G20 summit, but neither side appears to be in a compromise mood. Macron is especially concerned about voters in the Channel ports with presidential elections only six months away.

The Pentagon is worried about a new Chinese hypersonic missile, and defence experts fear the development could usher in a new space-based arms race. Beijing does not have near as many warheads and delivery systems as the US, and its latest offering indicates that it is focusing on quality rather than quantity. A key element in America’s nuclear strategy is its anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system. Protection from a first-strike capability gives it a devastating retaliatory advantage. That is why George W. Bush pulled out of the ABM Treaty with Moscow in 2002. According to news reports, China has developed the capability to circumvent ABM systems by firing a hypersonic missile into space, well beyond the reach of America’s global radar systems. The missile then orbits the Earth undetected until ground Chinese control decides to bring it down on the target. The acronym for this missile is FOBS or Forward Orbital Base Systems. The only time the ABM system can detect a FOBS is when the missile is launched and when it re-enters the atmosphere seconds away from hitting the target. According to the Financial Times the Chinese have tested two such hypersonic missiles. They both orbited the Earth twice and one landed within 24 kilometres of its target. Beijing has denied that the missile has any defensive purposes. Washington at first denied any knowledge of the tests, but has since confirmed both the tests and their concern.

A benevolent dictatorship is probably the best form of government. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appear to be proving that the problem is that such a dictatorship rarely remains benevolent, if, in the case of Saudi Arabia, it every truly was. First there was the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Now one of Riyadh’s top former intelligence officials, Saad al-Jabri, has gone on American television to claim that MBS is a “psychopath” who plotted to kill the late King Abdullah with a poison ring. Furthermore, that the Saudi leader plotted to murder him and is holding his children hostage to keep him silent. The Saudis, of course, deny everything. But there is no doubting the credentials of al-Jabri. The producers at CBS’s 60 Minutes thoroughly checked him out with the CIA and State Department before giving him air time. Which raises the question of whether or not the interviews signify a shift in American policy towards the Saudis.

There is no doubt now that Russia is weaponising its energy resources, and the current number one target is Europe’s poorest country—Moldova. Gazprom, Russia’s energy monopoly has threatened to cut off gas supplies unless the Moldovans cough up $709 million in back payments and agree a new contract from December of $790 per 1,000 cubic metres of natural gas. But why Moldova? For the same reason that Moscow has cut off gas to Ukraine on three separate past occasions. It wants to force these countries back into the Russian sphere of influence by encouraging pro-Russian breakaway states in both nations. In the case of Moldova, Russia supports the pro-Russian but unrecognised breakaway state of Transnistra which runs along a narrow strip between the Dniester River and the Moldovan-Ukrainian border. In 1992 a brief war was fought between Moldovan and Transnistran forces with the Russians backing the Transnistrans. It ended with a ceasefire which has ever since been uneasily monitored by Russia, Transnistra and Moldova. In response, successive Moldovan administrations have moved closer to the EU. This has only angered Moscow and increased its determination to continue its support for Transnistra.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain” that has sold out in the US after six weeks but is still available in the UK.

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  • Laurence Cox 31st Oct '21 - 2:11pm

    The reports from the American military about the Chinese hypersonic missiles seem rather like the similar hysteria in the late 1950s about the ‘missile gap’. In fact, the Soviets experimented with the same approach from the 1950s onwards

    but eventually rejected it in favour of submarine-launched missiles for the reasons discussed in the article.

  • Jenny Barnes 31st Oct '21 - 3:57pm

    Fractional Orbital Bombardment System actually

  • Peter Hirst 1st Nov '21 - 12:41pm

    A proper functioning democracy is superior to a benevolant dictatorship because the people are informed, consulted and choose their leaders. It is easier to trust a democratically elected than a self appointed leader. Acceptance is the pivotal need for a dictator while involvement that of a democracy.

  • Peter Chambers 1st Nov '21 - 6:46pm

    Could the worst aspect of hypersonic missiles be that they act very differently from ICBMs and by declaring them as such the owners hope to be able to strike without ‘crossing the nuclear threshold’? That is, to own a missile that can actually be used in ‘limited war’, rather than those caught up in The Balance of Terror.
    In short: “give war a chance”.
    The concept was yet another of those failed 1950s ones. See also SLAM and PLUTO.
    The best way of winning is not to play the game.

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