Maps and the South China Sea

With the possible exception of Ukraine, there is perhaps no place in the world today so likely to see a localized conflict expand into a global war as the South China Sea. Business Insider has recently published a collection of maps that seek to explain tensions in the area. The maps themselves were originally produced by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, which has done an important service by documenting the economic, political and geographic issues that are shaping geopolitical tensions throughout the region. Therese Delpeche, who sadly passed away in 2012, argued in her important book, Savage Century: Back to Barbarism, that the political situation in Asia now resembles that in Europe in 1914. This idea was not new, and has been controversial within Political Science, but after reading her work it is difficult not to see historical parallels. For anyone who wonders why these ocean waters have engaged so many different nations, these nineteen maps explain what is at stake. The maps would also be a great teaching tool in an “Introduction to International and Global Studies” class.

For a critical look at U.S. policy in the region, and its implications for Australia, please see my review of Michael Fraser’s Dangerous Allies. For a broader look at the issue, please see my book review of Robert Kaplan’s work, Asia’s Cauldron.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

South Africa and Nuclear Security

Image of South Africa taken by NASA. Source: CIA World Factbook, South Africa
Image of South Africa taken by NASA. Source: CIA World Factbook, South Africa

Terrified of outside intervention, the South African military created six atomic weapons, which were dismantled after the collapse of apartheid. The nuclear material, however, was preserved, despite requests (by the United States and others) that the South African government convert this material into a less-dangerous form. This material is stored at a site called Pelindaba, which is the country’s main nuclear research center. In 2007 two separate teams attacked the facility, and were defeated by sheer luck. A recent account of this event makes for terrifying reading, less because of how close the attackers came to succeeding than for the lackadaisical response of the South African government. According to this account, recently posted on African Defense magazine, President Obama has twice written private letters to President Jacob Zuma, to ask that South Africa convert the uranium into a form less readily converted into nuclear weapons. The South Africans have failed to respond. This article merits careful reading.

The concept of human security is currently gaining traction in International Relations theory. This paradigm defines security as those issues that threaten not only the state but also the population. This approach has many merits, particularly given the rise of non-state actors as threats, and the impact that climate change may have on entire populations. Advocates of a security paradigm known as realism, however, critique human security as being a “slippery slope.” If you adopt this approach to security, what problems are not security issues? While I believe that human security has many advantages over realism as a means to address global challenges, this particular critique by realists does give me pause. Events such as the attack on Pelindaba are particularly dangerous, in way that seems to merit a clearly defined theoretical approach. One can only hope that behind the scenes South Africa is taking more steps to ensure security at this site than seems to be the case based on this report.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

What strange nightmare happened in Coahuila?

Metropolitan cathedral in Mexico City, from the CIA World Factbook, which states that it is in the public domain
Metropolitan cathedral in Mexico City, from the CIA World Factbook, which states that it is in the public domain

In September 2014 there was a tragic event in Mexico when 43 students in the state of Guerrero, Mexico disappeared. Despite some conspiracy theories, it is now clear that all were murdered by a drug cartel, which worked in collaboration with both the local police and the mayor, as well as the mayor’s wife. Mexicans were shocked by this event, which caused a political crisis for President Enrique Pena Nieto.  The world media gave extensive coverage to events, as people were stunned at the brazenness of the crime. The Iguala murders became a symbol of the horror of the Mexican drug war, and the extent to which it has corrupted not only the police, but also political elites. But what happened in Coahuila, in northeastern Mexico, and why have events there not received similar coverage? …

Mexican Ambush

Since 2006, when the Mexican drug war began, perhaps 150,000 people have either been killed or disappeared. Very few of these murders have ever been prosecuted. Even the number of dead is controversial, and it is possible that the true figure is much higher. The Mexican government has had significant successes recently, such as the capture on February 25, 2015 of La Tuta, the head of the Knights Templar in the Mexican state of Michoacan. Still, as quickly as one cartel is destroyed, a new one emerges to take its place. In this particular case, the New Generation cartel is quickly filling the space vacated by the Knights Templar. If anything, the level of violence against the state seems to be increasing. …

The Brazilian Drug Trade in Maps

Map by Addicted04 at
Map by Addicted04 at

I am currently working on a research project comparing the drug trade in Mexico with its counterpart in Brazil. I have an outstanding undergraduate student, Tony Zamoro, working on this project with me. It has been a great deal more difficult to find information on Brazil’s drug trade than Mexico’s, but he has managed to locate a wide range of maps -from Insight Crime, Newsweek and other sources- that display the drug trade and cartels visually. Here are some links to these maps.

Homicides in Brazil

Mexican Prisoners in Latin American Countries

Drug Routes in the Amazon

Favela Pacification in Rio de Janeiro

Areas of PCC Influence

Olympic Zones and favelas in Rio de Janeiro

What I find most interesting about the maps is that they often focus on favelas, rather than individual states. Of course, the PCC has influence throughout most of Brazil. The Mexican drug cartels also often overlap. For example, the situation in the state of Guerrero is complex, while even in Sinaloa -the home of the Sinaloan cartel- the drug cartels still compete. There are also areas in Mexico -such as Juarez- where competing cartels seem to have fought each other to a state of exhaustion, as the falling death rate in this city suggests. My point here is that there are similarities between the nature of drug cartels in the two countries. Still, the Brazilian drug trade is much more defined by the control of small urban environments, rather than broad swathes of territory, as is the case with Mexico. My question is: how has the differing character of the two countries’ borders shaped the geography of the drug trade and the character of the drug cartels?

The Brazilian drug trade is also driven by the diverse mix of drugs used within Brazilian urban areas, unlike in Mexico where rates of drug use have been lower than in the United States. In 2005 I interviewed drug traffickers and users in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The drug market there was stratified by age. Older users were more likely to inject drugs, including cocaine, whereas younger users more commonly used crack. It was also the case that people often varied the drugs that they used, even within a single day. The Mexican drug cartels also have diversified, but the Mexican drug market internally is perhaps not as large or as complex as Brazil’s.

If you are interested in Latin America, you might wish to read either my book on the region’s AIDS epidemic, or my study of military terror in Brazil.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

Map of Mexican Drug Cartels

I’m currently working on a project that compares the drug trade in Mexico and Brazil. My goal is to try to understand the factors that have made the Mexican trade so bloody in comparison with Brazil’s trade. I believe that part of the reason is the nature of border. Most of the cocaine trafficked into Brazil passes through highly porous borders in Amazonia, which would be impossible to close to the same degree as the U.S.-Mexican border. The Brazilian drug trade is also geographically fractured, despite the existence of major drug organizations such as the First Capital Command (PCC), Red Command, Pure Third Command, and “Amigos dos Amigos.” The Mexican drug trade also overlays a major movement of migrants from southern Mexico and Central America to the United States; this both creates a population vulnerable to crime, but also develops networks that move people from south to north outside the control of the state. There is no parallel migration in Brazil. One issue I face with this project is the large number of variables that make the drug trade different in these nations. …

Canada’s Project Habbakuk: the Strangest Military Technology ever

"Ice Wall" by CNaene at
“Ice Wall” by CNaene at

Military history is filled with strange ideas, which are often created out of extreme necessity. Sometimes they work, such as Hannibal’s ruse of tying torches to the horns of cattle, in order to mislead the Roman army regarding the direction his forces were moving. More often they fail. Still, of all the strange, mad ideas in military history, none was ever so odd as Project Habbakuk. During World War Two, the survival of Britain depended upon victory in the Battle of the Atlantic. An island nation, Britain could not obtain the raw materials and food that it needed to survive if it could not defeat German submarines. As the sea battle moved to a moment of crisis, a strange man of questionable genius named Geoffrey Pyke conceived the idea of building warships out of ice. As bizarre as the idea sounded, a memo on the idea was brought to Churchill in December 1942. He loved the concept and and ordered that research on the project move forward.

It soon became clear that ice was an unsuitable building material. Fortunately, scientists soon learned that by mixing wood pulp with ice an incredibly strong material could be created, which would also resist melting. The plan was to create an immense aircraft carrier, many times larger than any other in existence, out of this new material. According to L.D. Cross (Code Name Habbakuk, p. 52) it would have reached two million tons, and have stretched more than the length of two football fields. Its sheer mass would have helped –at least in theory– to make the ship unsinkable. The work of of designing and building the ship was given to Canada, although Canadian Prime Minister McKenzie King thought, as revealed in his famous diaries, that this was “another of those mad, wild schemes (that started) with a couple of crazy men in England” (L.D. Cross, Code Name Habbakuk, 63). Nonetheless, the government decided to build a small prototype on Patricia Lake in Alberta, Canada. Of course, in practice the idea was impossibly complex, and by 1943 Britain had nearly won the Battle of the Atlantic. The project was finally abandoned in December 1943. …

Malcolm Fraser’s Dangerous Allies

"Globe Retro" by vectorolie at
“Globe Retro” by vectorolie at

Malcolm Fraser was the Prime Minister of Australia from 1975 to 1983. He has recently written Dangerous Allies with Cain Roberts, in which he analyzes Australia’s grand strategy from the 19th century to the present. At its core, his argument is that Australia has always adopted a policy of “strategic dependency,” first with Britain and then with the United States. Given Australia’s economic and military weakness in the nineteenth century, he believes that this was an inevitable choice. At the same time, this approach has consistently led Australia into disaster. Fraser clearly has no love for Churchill. He describes the losses and perils that Australia faced from Gallipoli during World War One, to North Africa in World War Two. By 1941 Australian forces were far from the home front, which was left vulnerable by the British debacle in Singapore. Overall, Fraser’s depiction of Australia’s relationship with Great Britain is one in which the nation made great sacrifices for little reward. …

Nuclear Sabotage in Europe

"Nuclear" by luigi diamanti at
“Nuclear” by luigi diamanti at

In a previous article, I discussed how the French government has sought to suppress evidence regarding the massive costs that a nuclear accident would entail. But an accident is not the only danger facing nuclear reactors as a recent incident at Belgium’s Doel 4 nuclear reactor makes clear. Some person -most likely an employee at the plant- deliberately damaged an oil drainage system from a turbine, which caused so much damage that the plant will be closed until after the New Year. Now Belgium may face blackouts if winter demand for electricity is particularly high. The Doel 4 incident is particularly worrying because the plant is located in a heavily populated part of Europe.

Remarkably two other reactors are also offline in Belgium, because cracks were found in reactor casings, which means that Belgium has lost more than half of its nuclear capacity. While people often argue that renewable power is too intermittent to be relied upon, events in Belgium again make the point that there are also major risks in relying on nuclear power. In this particular case, we know very little about the sabotage. Was it carried out by an isolated individual? If so, what was their motivation? Clearly threats to to the integrity of nuclear reactors do not always come from outside the plant. Currently the case in Belgium is being investigated by the Belgian police. Do these forces have the expertise to investigate nuclear crimes? The Belgian case also should make security experts and plant owners question their practices. How carefully are plant employees screened, and what monitoring systems are in place? …

The 2013 French White Paper on Defence and National Security

Cities of France by David Monniaux, Wikipedia Commons.
Cities of France by David Monniaux, Wikipedia Commons.

National white papers on military strategy are key tools to understand trends in security thought. Last year, the French government issued a White paper on National Defense and security, which has a few interesting points. First, although the document never once uses the term “human security,” this concept has influenced the document: “The term `risk’ refers to any danger that does not include any hostile intent but which might impact on the security of France: they therefore include political events as well as natural, industrial, health and technological risks.” Part of the reason for this shifting emphasis may come from the fact that “France no longer faces any direct, explicit conventional military threat against its territory.” Indeed, Europe’s current security situation, the document suggests, is nearly unique in its history: “… since the end of the Cold War, the European continent has ceased to be the epicenter for global strategic confrontation. This is without precedent in the history of our continent.” …

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