Ukraine Update: 19 December, 2021

Predictably, Russia’s draft security proposal has not elicited a positive response from NATO governments. The terms embedded in the document include denying NATO membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet states, as well as reducing the amount of NATO troops and weapons presently deployed in Eastern Europe. The security proposal was crafted as a counterweight to NATO’s eastern expansion and the problems it has created for Russia’s own security dilemma. While NATO member-states discuss the proposal and consider the response, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said his country’s relations with the US and NATO have approached a “dangerous point,” and that the deployment of large numbers of NATO forces so near to the border raises “unacceptable risks” to Russian security. There has also been no formal response to Russia’s call for discussions with the United States and other NATO nations on its proposal. But NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said that any talks “would also need to address NATO’s concerns about Russia’s actions, be based on core principles and documents of European security, and take place in consultation with NATO’s European partners, such as Ukraine.”

Sources in the Biden administration are now speaking of a ‘four-week window’ to prevent Russia from launching large scale military action against Ukraine. Admittedly, some of these sources are privately admitting that efforts by the White House to deter Russia’s designs have not been successful. The flurry of diplomatic activity and threats of large-scale economic sanctions placed on Moscow were it to invade Ukraine, have been undermined by public admissions by the White House that no US troops will be deployed to Ukraine. Earlier this weekend, a similar public statement about British forces was made by British Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace. If anything, Vladimir Putin now has solid assurances that without the possibility of US and British forces being deployed to Ukraine, no other NATO member will dare intervene militarily should Russian forces cross the border in the coming days or weeks.

China’s Influence and Prestige On The Rise In Central America

With Daniel Ortega firmly embedded as Nicaragua’s leader, it was only a matter of time before Nicaragua gravitated nearer to China’s orbit. That it finally happened comes as no surprise, but the manner in which Nicaragua acted has raised many eyebrows around Central America and the world. In short, Nicaragua ended its long-running diplomatic and business relationships with Taiwan. Managua wasted little time in formally established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China next. Shortly thereafter, the first batch of Chinese-donated COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Nicaragua. Over 1 million doses have been promised by Beijing, seemingly a handsome payment for Ortega having chosen China over Taiwan.

“The People’s Republic of China is the only legitimate government representing all of China and Taiwan is an undoubted part of the Chinese territory,” Nicaragua’s Foreign Minister Denis Moncada said in a televised announcement from capital city Managua last week. Nicaragua is not the first nation in Central America to sever ties with Taiwan in recent years. El Salvador and the Dominican Republic announced they would no longer recognize Taiwan. In the aftermath of Nicaragua’s decision, Honduras is now taking a hard look at the prospect of jumping ship as well.

Nicaragua’s decision is a double victory for Beijing. Taiwan’s diplomatic influence has been reduced and the Chinese beachhead in the Western Hemisphere expands. Outside of Cuba and Venezuela, which are both allies of Beijing, China is moving to gain favor and influence in other Central American countries. The Biden administration has been very slow in countering Chinese moves in America’s backyard. It should regard Nicaragua’s actions as a wake-up call at the very least. The fact that China is actively moving to minimize Taiwan’s circle of friendly nation-states takes the appearance of being a possible precursor to military action in the near future. In the bigger picture however, the Chinese inroads being made in Central America are the seeds of a challenge to US dominance in the Western Hemisphere at down the line.

Unfortunately, Washington doesn’t exactly see it this way. As a result, China’s inroads will expand unchallenged south of the border for some time.

Ethiopia Unraveling

Several nations are ordering their non-essential embassy staff members and dependents out of Ethiopia as the forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) move closer to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. The United States has joined Israel, Saudi Arabia, Norway, Sweden, Denmark in removing non-essential personnel from Ethiopia. The order was given on Friday and the US State Department is also urging all US nationals to leave the country too. A number of other rebel groups have joined the TPLF, forming an anti-government alliance that looks to unseat Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed from power one year after he launched the offensive in Tigray that has ultimately led to this point. In November 2020 there were very few people who could even entertain the notion that Addis Ababa would be under TPLF threat twelve months later.

The government has declared a state of emergency that will allow conscription of any military-aged civilian with weapons. Veterans are also being asked to reenlist in the military. In Addis Ababa, police are searching houses to uncover potential Tigrayans who are connected, or sympathetic to the TPLF. How much good these measures will do with the enemy fast approaching the city remains to be seen.

Beyond Ethiopia’s borders there have been a number of diplomatic efforts aimed at bringing the conflict to an end. The Biden administration’s press for negotiations to end the fighting fell upon deaf ears, and so have the selective sanctions placed on some Ethiopian officials by the US government. The reluctance of both sides to turn to diplomacy has derailed efforts by the African Union to mediate an end to the fighting and bring about a cease-fire. Predictably, United Nation Security Council calls for on all parties to refrain “from inflammatory hate speech and incitement to violence and divisiveness” are being ignored. The Security Council is also concerned with how this conflict will affect the stability of the region. The Horn of Africa has long been a hotbed of volatility. The prospect of the fighting leading to a division of Ethiopia similar to Yugoslavia in the early 1990s is beginning to make diplomats around the world uneasy.

Biden Administration Ignoring China’s Rising Geopolitical Power

President Biden’s remarks at a CNN town hall on Thursday that the US would come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of a Chinese attack it has caused confusion and anger around Washington, Beijing and the Western Pacific. The White House and administration have scrambled to either walk back or clarify Biden’s comments without much success. The Chinese government’s response was foreseeably stern. “When it comes to issues related to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and other core interests, there is no room for China to compromise or make concessions, and no one should underestimate the strong determination, firm will and strong ability of the Chinese people to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told the AP.

This is the second time in his short tenure as president that Biden has publicly said the United States will aid or defend Taiwan if China attacks. Given the current state of the US-China relationship, ill-considered comments are bound to have an effect on future decisions and action by both sides. At first glance, it doesn’t seem that Biden and his handlers really grasp the fact that the game has changed. China is no longer a nation-state hemmed in by adherence to the main components of international order. The PRC has reached the point where it feels confident enough to move in direct contrast to the rules and norms of the international community. China’s moves in the South China Sea and Hong Kong, along with Beijing’s response to investigations on the origins of COVID-19 are examples of China throwing caution to the wind, so to speak. Xi Jinping’s behavior and actions in the last eighteen months have made it apparent that Chinese foreign policy and economy are driven by expansionism. These drives are being fueled by China’s growing military capabilities in the Pacific region and beyond.

US policies, actions and rhetoric have yet to catch up. Even as members of his own party become more cognizant of these realities, Biden continues to regard China as an up-and-comer instead of as a threat to American security and interests.

Taiwan Tension Is Putting Pressure On US-China Relations

As Chinese violations of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone off the southeast coast of the island continuing in large numbers have caused tensions between the United States and China to simmer once again. Earlier on Tuesday, US President Joe Biden said he has spoken to Chinese President Xi Jinping about the growing animosity between Beijing and Taipei. During the conversation, according to Biden, both leaders agreed to continue abiding by the Taiwan Agreement. He appeared to be referring to the Taiwan Relations Act, as well as the One-China policy which has guided US relations with Taiwan and Beijing over the years.

The US denounced the Chinese military maneuvers on Sunday, calling them both provocative and destabilizing. On Wednesday, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will meet with senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi in Switzerland. This is apparently part of the latest push by the White House to ‘manage the competition,’ so to speak and prevent the two nations from falling into a major conflict. Sullivan will have his work cut out for him. Thus far, the Biden Administration’s foreign policy team has been shown to be lacking. Especially when it comes to dealing with China. The summit meeting held between US and Chinese officials in Anchorage back in March, 2021 certainly revealed the deficiencies on the US team. State is weak, the Defense Department is fully preoccupied with instituting a new woke policy on the services and the National Security Council is practically a nonentity in foreign policy matters. Afghanistan proved all of these points beyond the shadow of a doubt. Now, even before the dust has settled in Kabul, the Chinese are making noise.

Sullivan will likely come back from Switzerland emptyhanded. Beijing appears to be feeling out Washington to determine just how far the US will go to support Taiwan in the event of a China-Taiwanese conflict. That’s certainly one goal of the ADIZ intrusions over the weekend. By the end of the week, do not be surprised if China moves to tie the loosening of US trade tariffs to the heightening tensions near Taiwan. If Xi becomes convinced that the Biden Administration will go to any lengths to prevent a war over Taiwan, the Chinese president is going to use this to his nation’s benefit and gain every concession possible.

Then, once he is prepared to move and not a second before, China will still invade Taiwan at some point down the line.