Taiwan Tightens COVID-19 Regulations Amid String of Hospital Infections – The Diplomat

China Power | Society | East Asia

Taiwan is working to contain a domestic outbreak and maintain its remarkable success in containing the coronavirus.

People wearing face masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus go through gates of a metro in Taipei, Taiwan, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying

Taiwan has reported 12 total cases of COVID-19 linked to a cluster of infections at a northern hospital, leading the country to stiffen some regulations to prevent further community spread.

Health Minister Chen Shih-chung announced two new domestically transmitted cases on January 22, both linked to the cluster infection at Taoyuan General Hospital.

Taiwan went over eight months without a locally transmitted case of COVID-19 before a pilot for Taiwan’s EVA Air infected a Taiwanese woman in December. It has reported 12 cases in the hospital cluster since January 12.

On January 19, Taiwan’s government canceled celebrations for the Taiwan Lantern Festival, held annually to celebrate the Lunar New Year. The presidential office has also canceled its Lunar New Year reception, while some city governments have canceled their own lantern festival events.

The Taiwan Railway Administration said it would stop leasing main halls in the country’s train station. It also installed partitions in food court areas and positioned tables further apart.

Taoyuan Mayor Cheng Wen-tsang said on January 21 that Taoyuan General Hospital had completed a mass evacuation of patients so that hospital buildings could be disinfected by a team of government workers and members of the army’s “chemical warfare” group.

Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center said the next day that all discharged or transferred patients listed as high risk from the hospital must go into quarantine.

The hospital cluster has jolted Taiwan, especially as some of the infections occurred outside the hospital when workers infected their family members.

The country has largely existed in a COVID-free bubble due to a speedy, efficient, and transparent early response, which has led to a high level of trust between government and the population.

The new cluster showed signs of testing this trust. Chen, the health minister, did not initially reveal the location of the cluster, leading to days of speculation among citizens and the media.

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) spokesman Liu Kang-yen on Thursday ripped the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) for “political maneuvering” after KMT magistrates warned against unnecessary travel to Taoyuan, the location of the hospital cluster.

Taoyuan, which is home to around 2.2 million people along with the nation’s primary international airport, has become enveloped in fear of the virus, even as the total case count remains low. “Chemical warfare” army troops have been seen disinfecting the city on a regular basis throughout the week.

KMT spokesperson Chen Wei-chieh said the magistrates were only speaking on behalf of public health and noted Taiwan’s defense ministry has asked military service people to avoid visiting Taoyuan.

Taiwan has reported a total of 881 cases of COVID-19 and seven deaths as of January 22. Only 93 of those cases have been classified as community infections, most of which occurred before April 12, 2020.

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Low Rates Are Pushing US Capital Into Southeast Asia. What Happens When Rates Go Up? – The Diplomat

Pacific Money | Economy | Southeast Asia

For emerging markets, foreign capital inflows can spur growth – but they are also a potential source of volatility.

Singapore’s financial district as viewed from across the Singapore River.

Credit: Flickr/Choo Yut Shing

2020 was a rough year for capital markets in Southeast Asia. As elsewhere in the world, the region saw huge outflows in March and April as investors panicked and dumped assets. This in turn sent local currencies into freefall, while the U.S. dollar skyrocketed. As the year went on and capital markets adjusted to the realities of the pandemic, the situation began to equilibrate. By the end of 2020, net capital inflows had returned to many of the largest economies in Southeast Asia. The Institute of International Finance expects a strong recovery in non-resident capital flows to major regional economies in 2021.

There are several factors at play here. One is that virtually every country in Southeast Asia has elected to run short-term fiscal deficits in order to pump stimulus into their pandemic-battered economies. This means governments have been issuing a considerable amount of debt and, at least so far, investors have been buying it. One big reason is because interest rates in the United States are extremely low. In response to the pandemic, the U.S. Federal Reserve dropped its benchmark interest rate to practically zero, sending yields on U.S. Treasury bills way down. When yields are so low in the U.S., it often pushes capital into assets with more attractive returns.

This is one likely explanation for why the U.S. stock market has been on a huge upswing since March, seemingly detached from economic reality. It also helps explain why capital has once again started flowing into big emerging markets like Indonesia and Thailand. Investors are apparently expecting them to snap back pretty quickly as vaccination programs kick into high gear in 2021, and they offer returns that are far in excess of what a U.S. Treasury bill would yield. The benchmark rate in Indonesia, for instance, is currently 3.75 percent.

Things are playing out very much as they did in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, when low-rate environments in the U.S. and Europe pushed investors toward markets like Indonesia and Brazil that were offering much higher rates of return. But there is a catch: if assets in the U.S. start to offer higher yields again, such capital flows can easily reverse themselves and wreak havoc on emerging market currencies, which can in turn spread quickly to the real economy.

This is what happened in 2013 when the Federal Reserve telegraphed that it would be winding down its quantitative easing program, causing yields on U.S. Treasury bonds to go up. This event became known as the Taper Tantrum. As supposedly “safer” assets in the U.S. were now expected to increase their yields, it caused a sudden stop in capital flows to emerging markets that had fairly severe contractionary effects on countries running big current account deficits. What’s to stop that from happening again if yields on U.S. Treasury bills go up in the near future?

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There are steps emerging markets can take in order to make the most of capital inflows, while insulating themselves from the volatility of capital flight. Indonesia’s central bank began monetizing billions of dollars of public debt in 2020. That means that while foreign investors are buying some of it, the central bank holds a lot as well and this should give it some degree of control in the event of a sudden sell-off.

Macroprudential policies that direct capital toward productive investment, such as infrastructure or business loans, rather than fueling the expansion of consumer credit bubbles, also tend to help. In Thailand, where the government is by its very nature wary of capital inflows strengthening its currency, much of its recent borrowing has been very short-term in nature, possibly reducing its exposure to long-term volatility.

Perhaps these steps will prevent a repeat of the Taper Tantrum. But the fact remains that when yields on U.S. bonds begin to inch up again, it is likely this will cause capital flows to shift and could touch off another round of capital flight in emerging markets that have borrowed to fund fiscal stimulus during the pandemic. This underscores the duality of foreign capital as both an important tool of growth and as a source of volatility. Whether monetary authorities have learned enough from 2013 and taken sufficient steps to maximize growth while reducing potential volatility remains to be seen.

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US Declassifies Strategy, Revealing Yawning Gap Between Rhetoric and Reality – The Diplomat

Just eight days before Joe Biden is inaugurated as president of the United States, the Trump administration declassified the strategy it purports to have followed in its policies towards Asia.

Called the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific,” the President’s National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said that the “the document is being released to communicate to the American people and to our allies and partners, the enduring commitment of the United States to keeping the Indo-Pacific region free and open long into the future.”

The timing of the release seems more likely to be intended to pressure the in-coming Biden administration to perpetuate some of the Trump White House’s policies, or to burnish the professional reputations of national security officials tainted by Trump’s behavior and scandal.

Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger, who oversaw much of the strategy’s development as the National Security Council’s senior director for Asia, resigned from the White House last week after a deadly pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol.

The framework lists three overarching challenges in the Pacific: maintaining the United States’ strategic primacy in the region and promoting a liberal economic order against China’s illiberalism; ensuring that North Korea does not threaten the United States; and promoting the United States’ global economic leadership and fair trade.

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Separate from the merits of these objectives, the Trump administration made little progress towards achieving any of them and made some situations much worse.

Trump’s often capriciously pursued trade war against China broadly failed and likely cost the United States economically far more than it did China, and for marginal, if any, strategic benefit.

The world is broadly much more skeptical of China’s global objectives and concerned about its illiberal and unchecked influence. However, this awareness and concern has been driven far more by China’s own behavior, such as its treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, the political repression of Hong Kong, its economic punishment of Australia, and its abrasive “wolf warrior” diplomacy, than by U.S. leadership or policy.

The Trump administration’s legacy on the Korean Peninsula is much worse. After coming close to sparking a war with North Korea over the reclusive state’s nuclear weapons program in 2017, Trump engaged Kim Jong Un in a series of not very serious diplomatic summits that failed to produce any agreements. North Korea meanwhile unveiled a number of advanced new nuclear-capable missiles, including a giant intercontinental ballistic missile likely capable of hitting anywhere in the continental United States. Instead of bolstering its relationship with South Korea, the Trump administration repeatedly antagonized it with demands to pay the United States more money to support American troops stationed there, while also threatening to bring many of those forces back home and threatening South Korean car manufacturers with trade tariffs.

Instead of bolstering the United States’ economic leadership, the Trump administration presided over its retreat from the global economic order. In spite of China’s widespread economic coercion and disturbing violations of human rights, it has succeeded in leveraging international disappointment and skepticism of the United States from Trump’s policies to cement itself more securely into the global economy. Since Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, Southeast Asia assembled a new regional trade partnership with China, and the European Union concluded a new investment agreement with China over objections from incoming Biden officials.

The Biden administration now faces an even more fractured world from which it might try to assemble an international block against coercive Chinese policies.

The strategy’s goal of maintaining “primacy” in Asia is consistent with Trump’s own sometimes cartoonish military boasts – like the “super duper missile” – and the Pentagon’s goal of maintaining military “overmatch” against any potential adversary. But this overarching goal is not quite aligned with the strategy’s military tasks.

The strategy names two military goals for deterring or prevailing against China in a conflict: to deny China air and sea dominance within the first island chain in a conflict, and for the U.S. military to dominate outside of the first island chain itself. Successful denial does not require military primacy or overmatch and the Pentagon’s own plans suggest that the primacy and overmatch rhetoric belie its more modest approach.

Contesting Chinese dominance inside the first island chain is why the U.S. Army is pursuing new long-range rockets and artillery and is behind the Marine Corps’ expeditionary island base strategy and purchase of mobile missile systems.

But even though these efforts align with the White House strategy, it is questionable whether the strategy is responsible for them. Most of those new weapons systems and warfighting concepts began being developed during the Obama administration and reflect geographic reality more than the Trump team’s strategic innovation.

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If anything, primacy is even further out of reach after Trump’s four years in office than it was at the beginning. Despite coming in with promises of building a 350-ship fleet and successive plans for a 400 or even a 500-ship navy, the Trump administration never submitted a budget proposal to match its sound bites.

Incoming Biden administration officials appear skeptical that these more grandiose military goals are either affordable or necessary to balance China and protect U.S. interests in Asia.

At its best, the “Framework” reads as a collection of the United States’ enduring interests and policies in Asia grafted onto the outgoing President’s bombastic rhetoric and transactional worldview. The result was a strategy that could not achieve Trump’s own idiosyncratic goals and struggled to maintain the geopolitical position he inherited.

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Why Did Kyrgyz Voters Give Up Parliamentarism?  – The Diplomat

On  January 10, 2021 Kyrgyz voters elected a new president, Sadyr Japarov, whose meteoric rise to power was prompted by a violent upheaval in October 2020. The same day, voters cast a second ballot in a referendum on constitutional reform initiated by Japarov. In another win for the president-elect, 84 percent of voters approved changes that would give Kyrgyzstan a presidential system of government, effectively reducing the power of the parliament. 

Ten years ago, Kyrgyz citizens voted overwhelmingly in favor of a reform plan that transformed Kyrgyzstan into a parliamentary republic. Held on June 27, 2010, two weeks after deadly inter-ethnic clashes in the south of Kyrgyzstan and two months after the ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the constitutional referendum was designed to bring an end to nepotism, prevent the concentration of power in the office of the president, give voice to the opposition, and turn the parliament into a real decision-making body in the country. 

While 91 percent of Kyrgyz voters backed the parliamentary plan in 2010, its critics inside and outside the country saw a dark future. Acting Defense Minister of Kyrgyzstan Ismail Isakov argued at the time that a parliamentary form of government was alien to the “Kyrgyz mentality and spirit.” Speaking to journalists at the G-20 meeting in Toronto, then-President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev warned of the “chain of eternal problems” – parliamentary reshuffles, elite in-fighting, and the rise of extremism in Kyrgyzstan.

Critics of the parliamentary form of government in Kyrgyzstan were right in naming the symptoms, but not the sources, of woes in the country’s politics. The attitudes of the Kyrgyz electorate toward leadership, authority, state institutions, and public priorities have seen minimal changes in the decade since the parliamentary form of government was introduced. Bakiyev’s presidency, which precipitated the constitutional changes of 2010, was also marked by frequent stand-offs between the parliament and the president, and featured cutthroat political competition with assassinations reaching an unprecedented level in 2005-2006

Presidentialism is favored by Kyrgyz citizens because it offers a simple mechanism for holding the state leader accountable through the threat of violent removal in a system of governance rooted in patronage. To put it simply, it is easier to “punish” the sitting president by removing him from the office through revolt than to deal with the parliament. A revolt against the power-sharing system in the parliament threatens to break the patronage networks cultivated by the ruling elite that many in the population benefit from. Even if dissatisfied, some voters blame other factions for the country’s problem or fear that change will give other factions more power over them.

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With roots in the Soviet era of endemic deficit, red tape, and ethnic privilege, client-patron relations were strengthened in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, giving rise to a deeply entrenched system of patronage. In this system, people pursue their political and economic ends primarily through personalized networks meting out rewards and punishments. In these networks, people’s loyalty and allegiances are exchanged for favors and rewards dispensed by those in positions of power and having access to public resources.

Political and business competition in Kyrgyzstan has taken place through the contest of these patronage networks, involving political, business, and, often, criminal interests. The majority of political parties have been ideologically empty vehicles for institutionalizing the promises of rewards to those at different levels of the patronage networks in exchange for voters’ mobilization. Business success, too, has been conditioned by one’s connections to the state obtained through involvement in and support for the patronage networks: In exchange for financial contributions during election campaigns, business interests can receive seats in the Kyrgyz parliament that come with immunity from criminal prosecution and guaranteed access to the country’s wealth. 

During the Akayev and Bakiyev presidencies, one of the patronage networks connected to the president’s kin managed to consolidate power in the state to the exclusion of other competitive power networks. In both instances, this strategy backfired, leading to intra-elite revolts backed by demonstrations that toppled the presidents. By strengthening the parliament’s powers, the 2010 Kyrgyz Constitution, which was a result of an informal compromise among the representatives of several patronage networks estranged during the Bakiyev presidency, set the stage for a more diffused and pluralistic patronage system. Although, these changes prompted elements of genuine political debate and competition at the national level, they further hollowed formal institutions, eroded good governance, and strengthened reliance on patronage networks in the end.

Against the backdrop of strengthened patronalism, presidentialism represents a type of “social contract” between citizens and their president that defines their rights and obligations toward each other, and allows the citizens to remove the president at any point during his tenure through the administration of “electorate justice” if he fails to deliver on the promises to the electorate. 

The challenge for President-elect Japarov is live up to the citizens’ expectations and those of the patronage networks that backed him. Noticeably lacking a political program, Japarov ran on pledges of fighting corruption, pulling the country out of its economic crisis, expending social welfare benefits, and discrete promises to the various elements of his support base, which includes a strong rural following, disenfranchised youth, and Kyrgyz nationalists. Japarov’s fast-track advancement from a prison cell to the prime minister’s chair and the post of acting president wouldn’t have occurred without the backing of powerful patronage networks. Getting all these different networks and constituencies to work in his support instead of against him will be an insurmountable challenge facing the new president.

Kyrgyz voters have learned, and demonstrated repeatedly, that the real power in Kyrgyzstan lies with its people. However, frequent power shuffles reduce people’s respect for the rule of law and for public authorities. This means that any difficulties governing the country and pushing through the needed economic and social reforms will be amplified. The coronavirus pandemic has already pushed Kyrgyzstan to its economic edge and removed the cushion presented by labor migration that mitigated its chronically high unemployment rate. Experts warn of new protests in Kyrgyzstan as early as the spring of 2021.

Mariya Y. Omelicheva is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Kansas.

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William Burns: Biden nominates veteran diplomat as CIA director

William Burns, who served for three decades as a diplomat, was key in reaching the Iran nuclear deal.

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Taiwan’s Opposition Party Pushes for Referendum on US Pork Ban – The Diplomat

China Power | Politics | East Asia

The Kuomintang wants to overturn a government decision to allow imports of U.S. meat containing traces of a controversial feed additive.

Taiwan’s main opposition party is pushing ahead with efforts to initiate a referendum that could reverse the government’s decision to lift a pork import ban, which had been seen as the main obstacle to a free trade agreement with the United States.

Taiwan began allowing pork imports containing ractopamine, a controversial feed additive banned in much of the world but used in the U.S., on January 1, months after President Tsai Ing-wen announced her government’s intention to remove an existing import ban.

The opposition Kuomintang (KMT) said Tuesday it had begun collecting signatures for the second stage of a public referendum that aims to reverse Tsai’s decision.

The KMT passed the first stage of the referendum process, but that’s not a difficult threshold to meet: The party was required to collect the signatures of 0.01 percent of eligible voters in Taiwan’s last presidential election, or 1,931 people. It reached that goal last month.

It must now collect the signatures of 1.5 percent of eligible voters – around 290,000 people – for a referendum to take place.

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If successful, the public will vote on a referendum question, which, according to the KMT, would ask: “Do you agree to a total ban on the importation of pork and related products containing leanness-enhancing additives (ractopamine and other beta-agonists)?”

Under Taiwan’s referendum laws, at least 25 percent of all eligible voters – around 5 million people – must vote in favor for the measure to pass. The number of yes votes must also outnumber the number of no votes.

Tsai said in August her government would allow imports of pork and beef containing safe levels of ractopamine starting on January 1, removing what had been the primary hurdle to negotiations on a free trade pact between Taipei and Washington. The move was a domestic political risk and faced immediate backlash from the KMT, along with pig farmers.

Health experts have been split on the issue in Taiwan and throughout the world. Ractopamine can allow an animal to grow larger and leaner with less food, especially in its last few weeks before slaughter. But many countries group it with other beta-agonist drugs, which have been shown to be harmful to human health.

The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) set standards allowing pork with traces of ractopamine it says are not harmful to human health.

KMT chairman Johnny Chiang has insisted his party’s opposition to the decision is an issue of public health, rather than politics.

But there are questions over whether Taiwan’s public referendum system allows voters to make informed decisions on complex issues that can be difficult to understand.

In 2018, Taiwan voted on a slate of 10 referendums, deciding to uphold restrictions on same-sex marriage and food imports from Japan’s Fukushima region while opposing plans by the DPP to decommission the nation’s three active nuclear power plants by 2025. (The legislature legalized same-sex unions months later by sidestepping the restrictions in that referendum decision.)

Experts criticized Taiwan’s 2018 referendums, saying they did not give the public enough time and information to make informed decisions. Referendums only required a one-month public deliberation period – far shorter than the time period required in other countries with referendum laws, such as Ireland.

The KMT may call pork imports a public health issue, but the public will see it through a political lens. Should the referendum drive be successful, Taiwan’s people will be asked to decide on an issue that even health experts have not agreed upon – and their decision could dictate the future of trade between Taiwan and the United States.

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China Is Already Using the Storming of the US Capitol for Propaganda – The Diplomat

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington.

Credit: AP Photo/John Minchillo

On January 7, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying tweeted, without comment, a 2019 video entitled “Mobs storm Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.” The video shows black-clad, umbrella-wielding groups breaking glass doors to storm into Hong Kong’s legislative building, where they defaced the Hong Kong government seal and committed other acts of vandalism. The event occurred on July 1, 2019, during the height of Hong Kong’s anti-extradition bill protests

From her tweet alone, it wasn’t immediately apparent why Hua was bringing up events from a year and a half ago. But given the context, it’s safe to assume Hua was drawing an unspoken parallel between the break-in to LegCo in 2019 and the storming of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021. A pro-Trump protest, after hearing from President Donald Trump himself, turned into a violent mob, forcing their way into the Capitol in an attempt to prevent Congress from giving its ceremonial approval to President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.

Hua’s comments in the January 7 press briefing made the Hong Kong-DC parallel explicit. Prompted by a question from a reporter asking for her thoughts on the comparison, Hua didn’t hold back:

You mentioned the unrest in Hong Kong. On July 2019, radical and violent protesters in Hong Kong broke into the Legislative Council, ransacking the main chamber, smashing facilities, tossing toxic liquid and powder at police officers, and even biting off one police officer’s finger and stabbing another. But the Hong Kong police showed maximum restraint and professionalism and no protester ended in death. You mentioned that there were already four deaths in Washington in what was less violent and destructive than the case in Hong Kong.

If you still remember how some U.S. officials, lawmakers and media described what’s happened in Hong Kong, you can compare that with the words they’ve used to describe the scenes in Capitol Hill. I made a note of some words they used. They all condemned it as “a violent incident” and the people involved as “rioters”, “extremists” and “thugs” who brought “disgrace.” Now compare that with what the Hong Kong violent protesters were called, like “a beautiful sight” [a reference to a comment by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi] you brought up and “democratic heroes.” They said that “American people stand with them.”

What’s the reason for such a stark difference in the choice of words? Everyone needs to seriously think about it and do some soul-searching on the reason.

My colleague Abhijnan Rej, in his trenchant analysis of the storming of the Capitol, wrote that “Every time the U.S. would seek to bring a Xi or Duterte or Bolsonaro into line, strongmen will retort with descriptions of how Trump’s militia literally brought American lawmakers to their knees as they sought to uphold the people’s will.” That’s true, but Hua’s comments reveal another, equally troubling dynamic at play as well: The Chinese Communist Party (and other authoritarian governments the world over) can point to the clearing of the U.S. Capitol – by police as well as the National Guard, with four fatalities reported – to justify their own treatment of protesters.

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There’s no small irony in the fact that, also on January 6, Hong Kong arrested 53 pro-democracy politicians and activists for “subversion,” alleging a plan “to paralyze the government and seriously interfere in, disrupt and undermine the performance of government duties and functions, and compel the Central People’s Government [in Beijing] and the HKSAR [Hong Kong Special Administrative Region] Government.” Those arrested in Hong Kong had committed the supposed crime of contesting an election, with a plan to win a legislative majority and blueprint for how to use that power. The mob at the U.S. Capitol, meanwhile, showed what subversion with the intent “to paralyze the government” actually looks like by using violence to forcefully adjourn the U.S. Congress to prevent it from carrying out official duties.

If U.S. media, rightfully, is refusing to legitimize the mob of January 6, 2021 as “protesters,” then Hua and other will claim the right to label dissenters at home “insurrectionists.”

In separate comments, Hua suggested that the chaos at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 would help China, both abroad and at home.

On the foreign policy front, China seems intent on using the violence – which has cast an indelible stain on the U.S. as a whole, but particularly on Trump and his close allies – to discredit the Trump administration’s China policy. That includes Beijing’s personal bete noire, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been particularly bombastic in his criticisms of China, even as the clock ticks down on his tenure.

“A handful of anti-China politicians in the #US have been staging a final show of madness,” she said on Twitter. “They’ll stop at nothing to sabotage China-US relations for selfish gains. Such acts will surely be punished by history. The #US shall pay a heavy price for its wrong actions.” The violence at the Capitol thus becomes delegitimizing for the Trump administration’s China policy, as the same actors are responsible for both.

Hua also suggests, as many analysts expected Chinese officials would, that the chaos is more evidence that democracy is inherently messy and unstable – and thus that China’s authoritarian system is preferable. If and when Chinese people seek a voice in politics, CCP officials can point to the events of January 6 in the U.S. to justify keeping tight control.

“Thank you, Mr. #Pompeo, for this vivid lesson,” Hua added to her Twitter thread. “Thanks to it, we #Chinese cherish our life & love our country even more. We are also more convinced that the path we’ve chosen is correct.”

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South Korea to dispatch diplomat for Tehran talks after Iran seizes tanker

South Korea has decided to send a delegation to Iran to seek the release of a tanker seized in Gulf waters by Iranian forces.

A senior diplomat will go ahead with a planned visit to Tehran amid tensions over $7 billion in Iranian funds ($215,066) frozen in Korean banks due to US sanctions.

News of the visit came as Seoul’s foreign ministry called in the Iranian ambassador to South Korea for a meeting and urged the early release of the South Korean-flagged tanker and its crew of 20.

The tanker was carrying a cargo of more than 7,000 tonnes of ethanol when it was seized on Monday local time over what Iranian media said were “pollution violations”.

An Iranian Government spokesman rejected mounting allegations that the seizure of the vessel amounted to hostage-taking, and instead pointed to South Korea’s holding of Iran’s funds as “hostage”.

“We’ve become used to such allegations … but if there is any hostage-taking, it is [South] Korea’s Government that is holding $7 billion which belongs to us hostage on baseless grounds,” spokesman Ali Rabiei said to reporters at a news conference streamed live online.

The incident comes as Iran has shown increasing signs of willingness to assert its claims in the region as US president-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office later this month, succeeding Donald Trump.

Iran started violating a nuclear deal in 2019 in response to Mr Trump’s withdrawal from it the previous year.(Reuters: Shamil Zhumatov)

Tehran also said it had resumed 20 per cent uranium enrichment at its underground Fordow nuclear facility: The Trump administration reimposed sanctions on Iran in 2018 after Washington withdrew from Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six major powers.

When asked about the status of the ship’s crew before his meeting at the Seoul foreign ministry, Iranian ambassador Saeed Badamchi Shabestari told reporters “all of them are safe”.

Iranian state TV previously cited that a Tehran Government official said South Korea’s Vice-Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun had been scheduled to visit before the seizure of the tanker to discuss Iran’s demand that the frozen funds be released.

Mr Choi will discuss “various pending issues” between the two countries on top of the seizure, foreign ministry spokesman Choi Young-sam told a briefing in Seoul.

“In the earliest possible time, a working-level delegation led by the regional director will be dispatched to Iran to try to resolve the issue on the ground through bilateral negotiations,” Mr Choi said.

China calls for calm

Meanwhile, China has urged calm and restraint after Iran’s uranium announcement, which breaches a 2015 nuclear pact with major powers, including China.

Iran started violating the accord in 2019 in a step-by-step response to Mr Trump’s withdrawal from it the previous year and the reimposition of US sanctions, which had been lifted under the deal.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the Iran nuclear issue was at a critical juncture and was “extremely complex and sensitive”.

“China urges all sides to exercise calm and restraint, to stick to the commitments of the agreement and to refrain from taking actions that might escalate tensions, so as to make space for diplomatic efforts and a change in the situation,” she told a daily news briefing in Beijing.

“The urgent task at hand is for all sides to push the United States to return unconditionally to the agreement and remove all relevant sanctions,” Ms Hua said.

Doing so could help bring the agreement back onto “the right track”, she said.

The agreement’s main aim was to extend the “breakout” time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb, if it chose, to at least a year from roughly two to three months.

It also lifted international sanctions against Iran.


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Is China the 21st Century’s Great ‘Going Concern’? – The Diplomat

The Debate | Opinion

Halford Mackinder is famous for his “heartland” theory, but another of his major theoretical constructs may be more relevant to China’s rise.

China’s rise to global power in the 21st century is attributable to several factors, but perhaps the most important is that China for the past decade or more has been the world’s greatest “Going Concern.” What that means was best explained in 1919 by the British geopolitical theorist Sir Halford Mackinder in his timeless book “Democratic Ideals and Reality.”

Students and scholars of Mackinder sometimes focus too narrowly on the geographical aspects of his ideas and concepts. Contrary to some of his critics, Mackinder was not a geographical determinist. In his famous 1904 “pivot” paper, Mackinder wrote that the global balance of power was the product of “geographical conditions, both economic and strategic, and … the relative number, virility, equipment, and organization of the competing peoples.” Favorable geography was important, but by itself insufficient, to achieve global power. The other necessary ingredient was “social momentum” or what he also called the “Going Concern.”

It is no accident that Mackinder began “Democratic Ideals and Reality” by discussing the concept of “social momentum” or the “Going Concern.” This concept encompasses economic growth, sufficient population, and social/political organization, with organization being the most critical factor. Mackinder compared the structure of society to a “running machine.” It is that “running machine” that enables man to exercise greater control over nature and that produces “social momentum.” Social momentum produces scientific and technological advances, but society’s overall productivity and political stability depend upon the proper organization of those scientific and technological advances and the populace as a whole.

“The great organizer,” Mackinder wrote, “is the great realist,” and the organizer “inevitably comes to look upon men as his tools.” Mackinder explained, “In the sphere of politics, the organizer views men as existing for the state.” The organizer thinks about how strategically to use people, instead of protecting the rights of people. Mackinder identified Napoleon and Bismarck as great organizers, though Bismarck, he noted, was far more prudent because he possessed “insight into the minds of other nations than his own.” The great organizer, Mackinder wrote, also understands and appreciates “the lasting [geographical] realities of our earthly home.”

China since the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping has been a “Going Concern.” It has abundant “social momentum.” China’s most important businesses are tied to the state, which in turn is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP is today’s “great organizer” and it has provided China with “social momentum” and has made China a “Going Concern,” perhaps the 21st century’s greatest “Going Concern.” The CCP looks upon its citizens as tools who exist for the state.

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Mackinder warned, however, that a Going Concern was not self-perpetuating. If social momentum breaks down for whatever reason – economic downturns, social and political instability, war – the organizers may lose control of events. That is essentially what happened to the Soviet Empire in 1989-1991. “History,” Mackinder explained, “shows no remedy but force upon which to found a fresh nucleus of discipline in such circumstances.” And, he noted, “the organizer who rests upon force tends inevitably to treat the recovery of mere efficiency as his end.” The CCP recognized the danger of a Soviet-style collapse in 1989 when it forcibly crushed the Tiananmen Square uprising, and in its more recent repression of the Uyghurs and political crackdown in Hong Kong. Political and economic instability are the greatest threat to China’s social momentum because the CCP’s legitimacy no longer rests on ideology.

The CCP understands this, and it understands geographical realities – the Belt and Road Initiative is both an economic and geopolitical enterprise. The CCP has already expanded its economic and political influence across what Mackinder called the Eurasian-African “World-Island,” and, as Mackinder warned, “Who rules the World-Island commands the World.”

Francis P. Sempa is the author of the books “Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century” and “America’s Global Role,” and has written frequently on history and foreign policy for the Asian Review of Books, the University Bookman, the Claremont Review of Books, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, Orbis, Joint Force Quarterly, Strategic Review, the New York Journal of Books, and other publications. He is a federal prosecutor and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.

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Russia’s Romance With China Is All About Keeping Up Appearances – The Diplomat

It’s no secret that 2020 has been a tough year for friendships. The prospect of setting up yet another videoconference, even with immediate family, has proven too much for many. And so, inevitably, drinking buddies and water-cooler acquaintances have struggled to survive in the age of social distancing.

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, there seems to be little risk of drifting apart from one of his closest allies on the world stage. Only last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping described Moscow’s leader as his “best friend,” and it appears a new set of challenges have done nothing to shake that.

On a bilateral call between Beijing and Moscow on December 29, Xi insisted that they would work “unswervingly” to develop an ever-closer partnership, and that “strategic cooperation between China and Russia can effectively resist any attempt to suppress and divide the two countries.”

The message to the world, and particularly to U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, was clear: You will be taking on a united front. Both China and Russia face sanctions from Washington and its partners in one form or another, and the incoming American leader makes little secret of his distaste for either. Through the Cold War lens he cultivated over decades in the Senate, Biden’s foreign policy worldview is one where Moscow and Beijing are still the bad guys.

Both Xi and Putin have a lot on the line when it comes to the transition of power in the United States. China is eager to leave Donald Trump’s crusade against its businesses and exports in the past when he leaves office, but there are no guarantees that a Democratic administration will be any less oppositional. Similarly, Russia has genuine concerns about the collapse of bilateralism with the U.S., after Washington pulled out of a series of weapons control treaties. With nothing to gain from a new arms race, it has its hopes pinned on Biden for the extension of the New START treaty, the last remaining brake on the number of nuclear missiles the two countries can maintain in their arsenals. Unless Washington comes back to the table, it will expire in February.

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Analysts have long seen blossoming ties between Russia and China as a shallow relationship and, given the difference in the size of their economies, inevitably an unequal one. However, those predictions appear to have fallen short and, given the political tensions between East and West, the world’s largest country and the world’s most populous country have found themselves in a marriage of convenience that both value. Trade with China has shored up Russia’s industries against sanctions, while Moscow is fast becoming its neighbor’s most important energy supplier.

But if, as Xi said this week, Moscow and Beijing won’t be pulled apart, the question remains as to whether they can be pushed closer together. Despite the warm rhetoric, the reality of Sino-Russian diplomacy is that it runs a mile wide and an inch deep. Despite how closely the two nations are linked in trade and investment, theirs is a still a broadly economic partnership underpinned by almost no political integration.

The Western blocs that they seek to counterbalance are defined by the exchange of intelligence through pacts like the Five Eyes, and through joint military operations under the auspices of NATO. For now at least, Chinese spies and Russian generals appear to be a long way from contemplating anything similar. And, given Russia’s wariness over China’s growing role in its historic sphere of influence in Central Asia, that is likely to remain the case for the time being. There is also the added challenge that both parties effectively already have what they want from each other and neither currently sees the need to extend beyond economic partnership.

As a result, the idea of a deeper, lasting alliance between Moscow and Beijing is, for both of them, more useful than the actual reality of it. The two nations have a track record in overcoming past animosity and present-day frictions in the face of sanctions, trade wars, and attempts to leave them politically isolated. While fighting those battles has undoubtedly hurt both, their presentation of a united front is designed to demonstrate that they can survive them together if they have to.

Neither Putin nor Xi wants to turn their back on the West and, in fact, the opposite is true. With the colossal Nord Stream 2 pipeline linking Siberia’s natural gas fields to consumers in Germany, France, and the U.K., Russia has set out a bold future for its role in European energy markets. China, on the other hand, achieved a coup on December 30, signing a comprehensive trade deal with the EU after seven years of hard-fought negotiations. Both evidently see prosperity in stable links with the region.

Not everyone is supportive of that paradigm. The United States is aggressively lobbying against Nord Stream 2, even sanctioning German firms involved in its construction, on the pretext that it is a grave threat to energy security. Cynics claim, though, that Washington’s motives are less noble, and more closely related to ambitions to ply its shale gas to the European market. Likewise, Brussels’ decision to end the year by popping corks with Beijing risks antagonising both the incoming and outgoing U.S. administrations.

As convenient as friendly relations between the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai are, the threat that ties could run deeper in the face of political and economic conflict is their powerful attribute. If Moscow is forced to export less gas to Europe, it will export more to China. If Beijing feels naval tensions with the United States are rising in the South China Sea, greater coordination with the Russian fleet in the Sea of Japan is always an option.

While those kinds of arrangements would be a nightmare for many Western leaders, the irony is that few have as large a part to play in whether it comes about as they do. For European and American capitals, every punitive step, every sanction and every newly-imposed tariff carries the risk of driving Russia and China further into each other’s arms.

Gabriel Gavin is a writer and political consultant living in London, U.K. His reporting and analysis on Central and Eastern Europe has been featured in print and online for outlets including The Independent, UnHerd and The Kyiv Post.

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