In Other News – Philippines & U.S. recommit to defense agreement, Belarusians have had recent extraterritorial attacks, & More – 8/6/21

August 6, 2021

Philippines recommits to defense agreement with the United States after China comes up short. Last week Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte retracted his threat to end the longstanding Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the U.S., a critical component of the larger Mutual Defense Treaty between the two nations that’s been in place for over 70 years. The decision was announced at a joint news conference between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Manila counterpart Delfin Lorenzana, and signals frustration with China and a renewed warming towards Washington. For five years of his presidency, Duterte has advocated for an “independent foreign policy” while simultaneously courting China. But China hasn’t come through on many of Duterte’s aspirations – investments on infrastructure projects have been minimal and produced disappointing results, and China continues to challenge the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea (SCS). Further, in 2021 polling conducted by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, ~87% of Filipinos expressed that China’s encroachment into exclusive zones and continental shelves was their top concern in the SCS, with the same percentage demonstrating they would prefer to align with the United States. In July, the U.S. publicly stated that it would aid the Philippines should China attack its aircrafts or ships, and with the recent renewal of the VFA Duterte is indicating that he’s newly appreciative of the collaboration.

Recent extraterritorial attacks on Belarusians aligns with dangerous trend of transnational repression. Over the past decade, transnational repression, roughly defined as the coercion perpetrated overseas by authoritarian governments against citizens of their own countries, has been on the rise – recently demonstrated most egregiously by Belarus. This type of coercion isn’t new, but technology has propelled it forward and authoritarian regimes are increasingly threatened by the ongoing social media activity around exiled dissidents. Technology has also made it easier than ever to locate and surveil expats. This week, an active Belarusian dissident living in the Ukraine was found dead, hanging in a public park near his home. Last week U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Belarus of an “act of transnational repression” when it tried to force a dissenting Olympic athlete back to Belarus after threatening her with punishment upon return. In May, in an extreme event that defied international protocol, a Ryanair flight was hijacked to capture a Belarusian journalist who was on the plane. Indeed, traveling poses unique risks to dissidents and the mobility controls and mechanisms designed to prevent criminals from crossing borders continue to be abused by authoritarian states for repressive purposes.

Easing of Covid restrictions primes law enforcement for potential criminal exploits at international borders. Furloughed port and airport workers could be targeted by organized criminals upon returning to their positions according to recent messaging by the U.K.’s National Crime Agency (NCA). Individuals stationed at the borders, delivery centers and other hubs have historically been exploited by organized criminal groups who want to traffic in weapons, drugs, or people without detection. But trafficking is a constant, under-the-radar threat and during the pandemic the attention of national governments has been diverted to the more immediate concerns of its citizens. The NCA acknowledged that many employees have suffered during the pandemic but cautioned against the temptation to sell border-related information because it could have outsized ramifications for the safety of all citizens. Exasperating the situation, the pandemic has pushed millions of people worldwide into extreme poverty and criminals are recruiting the most vulnerable for illicit trafficking schemes, often involving children. The recent NCA alert indicates that individuals working the border are being recruited both in-person and online, sometimes under seemingly legitimate pretenses. The issue isn’t unique to the U.K., and with law enforcement focused on domestic issues heightened during the pandemic, it is likely that transnational, organized criminals will continue to exploit unstable situations to recruit both victims and accomplices.