Japan has begun construction work on a military radar station near a string of islands that is at the centre of a territorial dispute with China. The new base – on Yonaguni island – is located just 150km (90 miles) from the Japanese-held Senkaku island group, claimed by China as the Diaoyu islands. When they meet on Thursday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama are expected to underline the Japanese-US military alliance and stress to China that they will not tolerate any attempt to alter the status quo by force or coercion. The islands have been a scene of maritime stand-offs between Japanese and Chinese vessels and late last year China declared an Air Defence Identification Zone there. In the coming year, the United States plans to put more of a strategic focus on the Asia-Pacific.
In Amazon Kindle’s Political Thrillers and Suspense — Third World War once again high among the best sellers.
President Obama’s been talking on the phone to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. It’s the first direct contact between the two men since the West imposed sanctions after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. American experts, meanwhile, have been pouring over maps to see where Russia might march next. The small breakaway state of Trans-Dniester, technically part of Europe’s poorest nation, Moldova, is considered by some to be at risk. The territory became separated from the rest of Moldova in a brief war in 1992 and now its 300,000 people moscos,. Humphrey Hawksley has been to one Moldovan village that ended up as an enclave within Trans-Dniester.
As it flows down from the mountains, the Dniester River twists and turns through Europe’s poorest country, Moldova. Just north of the run-down village of Concieri it creates a horse-shoe shape, across the bottom of which is an old ceasefire line, marked now by a checkpoint and a bored Russian soldier.
The drab, flat agricultural land that runs from the check point to the river banks is controlled by the Moldovan government. On the other side is Trans-Dniester, a strip of territory torn away in a 1992 war that came with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It’s now Russian-controlled.
“We had only lived here a year before it happened,” says Ludmila Agatia looking across her small yard where piles of logs and hay are covered with blue plastic tarpaulins. A cat stretches is back and runs towards the field. Her dog barks setting chickens scampering. He strains on a chain bolted to the wall of her house.
“It was in the very first days,” she says. “My husband was down by the river and killed by a sniper.”
Valentin was a 30-year-old civilian lorry driver, a veteran, though, of the war in Afghanistan, who along with the rest of the village fought doggedly to keep out advancing Russian troops. Ludmila, now in early middle age, zips up her purple anorak against the wind and puts on a grim smile. “We didn’t fight so hard for it to be like this. As things are now…” she shakes her head sadly. “I don’t think it was worth it.”
The Crimean crisis has focussed minds in Concieri where national sovereignty is a moot issue. In the past hundred years or so it’s been part of Ukraine, Romania, the Soviet Union, Moldova now, and by a hair’s breadth the check point could have been in another place and the villagers would be citizens of Trans-Dniester, where a statue of Lenin and the Soviet Hammer and Sickle remain symbols of government.
The river would have been a natural boundary, but the ceasefire was declared along a line that pretty much ran through wherever the fighters’ positions were at the time. So Concieri has become a horse-shoe-shaped enclave within an enclave, its people feeling very much the presence of Russian troops – technically peace-keepers – who man border checkpoints. And they feel abandoned by their own Moldovan government, its beacon of European Union membership mustering not much enthusiasm.
The badly paved roads, crooked electricity poles and basic housing are pretty much unchanged from when people here were citizens of the Soviet Union. For many, the causes for which they fought have come to nothing. Modern Europe is seen as a place of unpredictable chaos, while in the lost territory of Trans-Dniester, people say have higher wages and pensions and political stability.
This is where the popularity of new Russia competes face to face with that of democratic Europe.
Ludmila says there’s a photograph of her husband Valentin in the village museum, but she doesn’t want to come with us to the museum because it makes her too upset.
Instead, we go with Vasily Nirca, who’s now 53, with a weathered face and faded blue eyes. “The whole village fought against the Russian ,” he says proudly as we walk, pointing to walls pockmarked with shrapnel and bullets. “It was close at times, but — by God — did we hold the line.”
It’s late afternoon and the sun is trying to pierce through leaden rain clouds that have yet to break. We stop at the village square, a patch of dirt with a small Orthodox church and a memorial inscribed with the names of villagers who died.
“So, what now?” I ask. “After Crimea.”
In Washington and Brussels, the talk is that Trans-Dniester could be Vladimir Putin’s next target, while in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, analysts say that voters don’t care that much. A patch of occupied land from another era is far less important than jobs and the economy.
Concieri’s museum is a room in the primary school – one wall give over to the war. Valentin’s black and white photograph shows a smartly-dressed young man in uniform.
Vasily points to another, of a prim, stern woman who was the village school teacher. “They came to her house one night and just shot her dead,” he says. His hand moves up to a faded photograph of a fighter who looks no more than a boy. “He stepped on a land mine,” he explains slowly. “He died in my arms.”
He tightens his lips, trying to keep his composure. “All this sacrifice,” he says. “You ask about Crimea. For sure we’ll be next.”
“And would you fight again?” I ask.
He’s quiet for a moment, his eyes moving carefully along the wall of pictures and tributes. “Who would fight?” he answers. “Not us. It’s wrong. The people in Trans-Dniester, their lives are better than ours. The Russians – they could just walk in here now, and who would stop them?
North and South Korea have exchanged fire into the sea across the disputed western sea border as tensions remain high over US-South Korean military excercises. The Philippines has submitted evidence to a UN tribunal hearing its case against China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. China has refused to take part in the arbitration and warned that the case will damage bilateral ties. With continuing tension in East Asia, South Korea and the Philippines have been consolidating their military alliances with the United States.
The Chinese navy has again been testing resolve in the South Chna Sea. As a Philippine crew tried to deliver supplies to its troops on the Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin in Tagalog and Ren’ai Reef in Chinese), the Chinese navy warned that it turn round or “take full responsibility” for its actions. Although routine, such confrontations are increasing. Perhaps the excercise in super-power diplomacy over Ukraine and Crimea will be put to good use should there be a flare-up in the South China Sea — of which China claims 90 per cent as its territory. In this case, the Philippine shipped succeeded in slipping through without violence.
I haven’t reported much from Egypt and am far from an expert. But I do know this. In August last year someone on the government payroll shot dead Mick Deane, a Sky cameraman, who had been my friend and colleague since 1987. In December, others on the payroll detained my friend Peter Greste, an Al Jazeera correspondent and his colleagues who have been held in the most appalling conditions and without due process since then. Then earlier this week, an Egyptian judge sentenced more than five hundred to death over the killing of a single policeman. The military ruler that runs Egypt is about to become president and the political party that won Egypt’s first credible democratic election is banned as a terrorist group.
The leading voices of Western democracy are supporting all this. Little wonder that Russia and China are moving onto the moral high ground.
While all eyes are on Ukraine, protesters are occupying the Taiwanese parliament, long-running, violent protests continue in Turkey, Thailand and Venezuela, and Egypt is consolidating military authoritarian power after protests there ousted its democratically-elected leader. In Ukraine and Egypt, the abrupt reversal of electoral choice was — with minimum nuance — heralded by Western democracies. Three challenges now need direct rebuttals. First, democracy has lost its post Cold War status as a universal vision. Second, national security comes from having nuclear weapons; Third, the bullet is a far more efficient method for changing policy than the ballot box.
The issue of bad business practice was succinctly captured by the 18th century French writer Voltaire in his novella “Candide”. A destitute sugar worker in South America, explaining his appalling injuries to the hero, Candide, says simply: “This is the price we pay for the sugar you eat in Europe.” Now, more than 250 years later, substantive change may be underway, thanks to a confluence of international forces.
Trans-Dniester is an unrecognized, Russian-controlled breakaway territory from Moldova – Europe’s poorest country wedged between Romania and Ukraine. Four million live in Moldova and about 300,000 in Trans-Dniester. After a six months war in 1992, 1,200 Russian peace-keeping troops have been posted there. Until last month they were re-supplied by road through Ukraine. The route goes from Russia to Luhansk, Donetsk, Dnepropetrovosk, Odessa, Trans-Dniester. Now, however, this routine operation has become highly volatile because it means Russian military moving through a potentially hostile Ukraine. Either a deal will be struck or Russia could take unilateral action, thus moving Trans-Dniester and Moldova into the eye of the storm.
After the end of the Cold War, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and others gave up weapons of mass destruction in the hope that this policy would open doors to international acceptance, trade and economic growth. On the other side of the argument lay Iraq and North Korea (and Iran through the Western prism) suffering under sanctions and isolation, precisely because they had these weapons. This makes the warning from Ukraine’s new prime minister Aseniy Yatsenyuk even more poignant, telling the the UN Security Council: “It would be difficult to convince anyone on the globe not to have nuclear weapons.”
How wrong is he? Moscow would win a nuclear war against Ukraine like swatting a gnat, but would possession of these weapons have been enough to deter it from taking Crimea?