New efforts by the United States government to determine the origins of the COVID-19 virus are causing unease in Beijing. China’s foreign ministry has rejected the possibility of a connection between the virus and a virus research laboratory in Wuhan and accused the US of “political manipulation and blame shifting.” Chinese authorities linked the earliest cases of the virus to a seafood market leading the initial scientific theories to center around the idea of COVID-19 first being transmitted from animals to humans.
Growing speculation appears to point in the direction of the virus having escaped from the Wuhan lab. Although the evidence available in the public domain has not changed, media reports from some US outlets in the past week suggest that US intelligence agencies received information that three staff members at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) were sick enough to go hospital in November 2019 with symptoms very similar to those of the coronavirus. Days later, the Biden administration ordered the US intelligence community to assess the origins of the virus and whether COVID-19 could’ve leaked from the Wuhan lab.
China is understandably angered by this. Beijing has spent much of the past fifteen months conducting damage control. The government’s actions, and as the case turned out, inactions, in the early days of the pandemic caused alarm and concern in a number of national capitals across the world. Many people believed, and still do, that China is hiding and distorting the facts.
Now that the Biden administration is openly challenging the truth according to China, the Chinese government is moving to counter the US argument and expected blowback. Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Washington’s words show that the US “does not care about facts or truth, and has zero interest in a serious science-based study of origins. Their aim is to use the pandemic to pursue stigmatisation, political manipulation and blame shifting. They are being disrespectful to science, irresponsible to people’s lives and counter-productive to the concerted efforts to fight the virus.” Running parallel with China’s clunky public accusations such as this one, will be more clandestine efforts to dampen the effects of the widening US investigation. Media outlets, politicians and businesses with financial ties and relationships with the Chinese government and CCP will be approached, persuaded and in some cases blackmailed or threatened.
We’ve seen it before and the fact that China is responding so fast to the return of COVID-19 suspicions indicates that Beijing might have more to hide than it is letting on.
The European Union’s executive body is proposing additional travel restrictions to combat the spread of coronavirus mutations and variants, and to maintain the movement of goods and workers across EU borders. The EU’s 27 member-states have been urged specifically to increase testing and quarantine steps for travelers as concerns about production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines have risen in recent days. The appearance of new variants that are more transmissible poses a risk to European hospitals, already struggling to contend with increasing numbers of new cases.
The new coronavirus variants have compelled many European nations to tighten their already extensive lockdown measures. France is considering the implementation of a third national lockdown if the 12-hour curfew now in place fails to stem the spread of new infections. Belgium has banned nonessential travel for its residents until March at the very least. Sweden has also barred travel from Norway in a move aimed at stopping the spread of new coronavirus variants.
Curtailing or banning nonessential travel is a difficult pill to swallow for the EU. It goes directly against the principle of free travel beyond national borders, a pillar of the Union. The virtues of free travel and unhindered movement have not stopped some national leaders on the continent from considering stricter measures. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said today that “no tourist travel should be taking place” as the German government weighed tougher measures.
Meanwhile, as travel restrictions are debated 400,000 EU citizens have already died from the virus since last February when COVID-19 made its first appearance in Europe.
The warring factions in Libya have agreed to restart ceasefire discussions, according to the United Nations. This news comes after days of intense fighting between the Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) and the internationally recognized Libyan Government of National Accord. Over the past six weeks GNA forces, with Turkish support, has driven LNA forces almost entirely out of Tripoli and erased most of the gains Haftar’s forces had made there since the LNA offensive began last April. LNA forces claim to have retaken some ground on Monday.
The reason for both sides so readily agreeing to a ceasefire could be that they need additional time to prepare for the next round of fighting. According to the US military Russia sent fourteen MiG-29 Fulcrum, and Su-24 Fencer warplanes to an LNA-controlled airbase in central Libya last month, minus national markings. The Turks have been transporting a considerable amount of military equipment to the GNA. After a period of dormancy, due in part to the COVID-19 crisis, it appears a major escalation is on the horizon.
If these talks produce results, it will not be the first ceasefire in between the LNA and GNO this year. There have been two already but each was temporary, and the fighting never entirely ended during the ceasefire periods. The UN Mission in Libya has said it hopes the coming round of talks can help produce ‘calm on the ground’ and allow Libya’s health system to deal with a recent outbreak of the coronavirus. Because of the pandemic, and new outbreak in Libya, the coming round of talks will be conducted via video phone.
As COVID-19 restrictions are being lifted in Turkey, a second surge of illegal immigrants is expected to start heading to Greece from Turkey. The information comes from a confidential report authored by the European border protection agency Frontex: “The restrictions on Covid-19 have been gradually lifted in most Aegean provinces, but not yet in Dardanellia, Constantinople and Smyrna. If freedom of movement is restored in these areas, massive movements of migrants towards the Greek-Turkish border can be expected.”
In February and early March tens of thousands of illegal immigrants attempted to cross from Turkey into Greece. The Greek-Turkish border area was under siege and dissolved into near chaos. Turkish troops fired on Greek police, and there were instances of Turkish soldiers actually trying to bring down the border fence. Then the pandemic came and brought a respite to the simmering border. The Turks transported the illegal immigrants back inland to refugee camps.
Now that conditions are starting to improve inside of Turkey, expect Ankara to begin moving the migrants soon. Practically speaking, Turkey cannot afford to keep them around for very long. The Turkish economy is presently on the ropes. The lira is at an all-time low against the dollar, and a number of the country’s largest banking institutions are precariously close to bankruptcy. Then there are Turkey’s foreign adventures to take into account. Syria is quiet for the moment, but as the pandemic withers out, this will not remain so. The same holds true for Libya, another area where Turkey has become heavily invested.
As far as the border situation goes, Greece had been preparing to move 400 additional police officers to the area before the pandemic forced the cancellation. Those plans appear to be back on now.
The US Navy has maintained operations in and around the South China Sea (SCS) through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Even though COVID-19 has had an adverse effect on US military operations and deployments globally, FON (Freedom of Navigation) operations, military aircraft overflights, and reconnaissance activities in the SCS region have continued. Granted, the size, and scale of these operations has dropped off somewhat they continue. The SCS is a critical area of the gameboard when it comes to the US-China security competition in the Pacific, and beyond.
Two days ago, the US sent two ships to patrol near an area of the SCS where a mineral rights dispute between Malaysia and China is ongoing. The two ships are the USS Montgomery, a Littoral Combat Ship, and the replenishment ship USNS Cesar Chavez. Chinese naval and coast guard vessels have been operation in the area regularly, and the recent appearance of US ships serves as a reminder to Beijing that the United States is watching its activities the SCS with great interest.
The number of available US naval assets in and around the Western Pacific is set to grow in the coming days and weeks. The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and her escorts have departed from Japan after the carrier’s annual repair period. Reagan will undergo a period of sea trails and carrier qualifications for her air wing before the carrier group begins its spring patrol in the Western Pacific. On the west coast of the US, the USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group is working up in preparation for a deployment set to begin later this month. This will give the US Navy potentially two aircraft carriers for operations in and around the SCS.
If US-Chinese relations continue down the same path they’re on presently, a largescale US show of force in and around the South China Sea could occur sometime in the early days of summer.