A tripartite military exercise between the US, India and Japan was announced for 2016. The exercise is to be held in the Philippine Sea just outside the controversial – and crowded – South China Sea. A US aircraft carrier group is already operating in the South China Sea, but the announcement of exercises has certainly piqued the interest of Beijing.
The exercise location – known to military planners as the “Philippine-Taiwan gap” – would be a difficult strategic point of heavy fighting in the event of major action against a Chinese surface fleet. All three exercise participants understand this, as does China. But the inclusion of India is a curious aspect. India’s history of alliances is fickle, so its motives for joining the exercise are as yet unclear.
In Iraq, the long-awaited security operation to retake the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State militants may not begin this year at all, despite rumours that the operation was imminent. Not only are the three main fighting factions (Sunni, Shia and Kurd) still quarrelling over planning, it is unlikely Baghdad could yet field the necessary manpower for the move.
That figure is estimated to be 40,000 ground troops – at minimum. And with major operations continuing in Anbar province against IS, Baghdad’s Mosul clearance is likely to be delayed until early 2017 at the earliest. Nevertheless, Iraqi Security Forces is forward-positioning troops close to the city and beginning clearing operations to soften IS defences while Baghdad organises the politics.
An historic dual election of Iran’s 290-seat parliament and its 88-seat Assembly of Experts was conducted on the same day last week resulting in an overall weakening for hard-liners. For Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s conservative party and the reformists, the result is a clear indication that the Iranian populace is supportive and desires greater reform.
Yet what the reformists and public wants will face the constraints of reality. Oil prices remain low, weakening Iran’s emergence into the international community. But the weakening of hard-liners represents a boost for the moderates, potentially setting the field for another victory in the upcoming presidential elections. Although they will have their work cut out for them.