2021 could very well be remembered as the year that the People’s Republic of China emerged from its shell, so to speak. Beijing might decide the time has come to discard finesse diplomacy and assertively assume what it views to be its rightful place as the next global superpower. China’s economic, diplomatic, and military power is rivaled only by that of the United States. Yet there appears to be a growing consensus among Chinese elites that the US is a nation in decline and will now move aggressively to impede China’s rise. They point to the actions of the Trump administration over the past four years as proof of this, especially with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to forestall or minimize any US action that might disrupt China’s long term geopolitical ambitions, Beijing could decide to move pre-emptively on one or more fronts at some point in the next twelve months.
Or then again, maybe not. In either case, 2021 promises to be a year where China is largely regarded as a challenge to the geopolitical status quo.
China led the world into the COVID-19 pandemic and then positioned itself to lead the world out of it, whether by design or default. The virus came to light in the Chinese city of Wuhan, which is largely regarded as the epicenter of the pandemic. China endured the first wave by essentially locking down the entire nation as the seriousness of the virus became known. Unfortunately, Beijing did not put similar safeguards in place to ensure COVID-19 did not spread beyond China’s borders. This recklessly oversight is directly responsible for bringing on the initial, rapid worldwide spread of the virus from late February through to early April, 2020.
Events after that point are fresh in our collective memories. Outside of the growing pressure on national healthcare systems from Spain to Iran, economies strained, and political systems buckled. And when all was said and done, it was the People’s Republic of China that benefitted most from the pandemic fallout.
Countless questions loom about China’s in 2021. Will Beijing soften its tone and absorb some responsibility for COVID-19? Can the United States and other democracies continue to push back against China even if it decelerates the recovery of national economies? What shape and directions will Sino-US relations go in under a Biden administration?
In the coming weeks and months, these questions, as well as many others, will find answers. China is going to be a regular topic of discussion here on the blog as we try to provide some answers.
With COVID-19 infections rising considerably, the Spanish government has declared a national state of emergency and is moving to impose a nighttime curfew. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has said the curfew will run from 11:00 PM until 6:00 AM every night, and will start on Sunday evening. The emergency measures also coming into effect will include travel restrictions between districts and regions should regional leaders deem them to be necessary. Private and public gatherings will be limited to six people. These measures will be applied to all national region in Spain with the exception of the Canary Islands. This state of emergency, and the measures included in it are nearly identical to the one introduced during the first wave of the pandemic in April.
Meanwhile in Italy, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has insisted there will not be a new nationwide lockdown even though COVID cases are rising significantly in his country. The government is adopting stricter measures. All bars and restaurants must close by 6 PM. Gyms, movie theaters, and swimming pools will close down and Conti urged Italians not to leave their immediate area unless for work, school, or health reasons.
Italy and Spain were hit hard by COVID-19 in the spring. The other day it appeared both countries, as well as others on the continent are moving towards stricter restrictions as the number of cases is rising. Over the past 24 hours the pace of those restrictions taking effect has sped up in Southern Europe, leaving one to wonder how long it will be until other parts of Europe follow suit.
Europe is facing a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases continue to surge in many nations across the continent. Outbreaks are being reported in France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and areas of Spain and Italy among others. Governments have been deliberately selective with placing restrictions, and lockdowns on the general public, but the time may be nearing when more immoderate measures are put into play. Ireland is the only EU nation to reimpose a six-week long nationwide lockdown starting Thursday. Nonessential retail businesses will close, and residents are expected to stay within three miles of their homes, except for work and other essential activities. Police will set up road checkpoints to deter unnecessary travel.
On the continent, select regions in Spain and Italy are returning to lockdown conditions. A two week lockdown begins in the Spanish region of Navarre on Thursday. The measures being imposed on Navarre are more restrictive than those which have been placed on Madrid by Spain’s central government. In Italy, the southern region of Campania will be conducting an 11 PM- 5 AM curfew similar to one currently in place in the north. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has said that this time around, unlike the March lockdown, he is giving towns and regions more freedom to decide what measures to put into place. In effect, Conte is giving towns and regions across Italy the ability to decide their own fate.
With a second wave of the pandemic now ramping up, travel restrictions which had been relaxed over the summer are starting to be reintroduced in some cases. Denmark has closed its borders again to a number of European nations that it considers to be high-risk. France is suggesting voluntary quarantines for people arriving from Britain and Spain. In the Netherlands and Belgium, the governments are trying to discourage non-essential travel across the shared border of the two nations.
All of these measures are relatively fair, and cannot be considered extreme. If case numbers do start to surge dramatically though, restrictions will become tighter and for the second time in a year the European Union could see its member-states closing its borders to essentially the rest of the continent.
COVID-19 cases in Iran have been rising dramatically, prompting health care and government officials to sound the alarm. Restrictions are being implemented now as it becomes apparent that a third wave of COVID-19 is upon Iran. The majority of Iranian provinces are classified as red on the national severity scale. 3,362 additional infections were recorded on Sunday and it seems that Tehran is experiencing the most cases. Iran has been hard hit by COVID-19. As of this morning there have been 446,448 confirmed cases since the beginning of the pandemic. Iranians have not been following public health restrictions as well as the government would like. I fact both Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani have issued warnings to the public about adhering to restrictions better. The Iranian government also blames continuing US sanctions for creating conditions where COVID-19 thrives. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accused the US of inflicting $150 billion worth of damage on the Iranian economy through sanctions.
International health experts are suspicious of the case count numbers in Iran. The death toll could be twice as high as the official figures. Undercounting, and selective testing methods have been cited as possible causes for a miscount. O
Despite the pandemic Iran’s uranium enrichment continues. In a confidential document distributed earlier in September the International Atomic Energy Agency reported the Iranian stockpile of low-enriched uranium increased by 523.8 kilograms between May and August.
Speculation on the wellbeing of North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un resurfaced over the weekend, prompting a renewed death watch on Kim, and concerns that a power transition could be in the works. It began with reports from South Korean intelligence last week that Kim Jong Un had delegated some power and authority to his sister Kim Yo Jong. The reports strengthened the notion that Un’s sister is being groomed to succeed him at some point by the end of the year. Then over the weekend Chang Song-min, a former aide to South Korea’s late president Kim Dae-jung made the bold allegation that Kim is in a coma and his sister is in fact preparing to take full control of the government. Chang claims that a full succession of power has not yet been completed and Kim Yo Jong is being positioned to prevent a vacuum from forming when Kim Jong Un finally expires.
Back in April Kim’s health condition was in question following an extended period of him not being seen in public. In the absence of hard information speculation soared. Rumors of Kim having suffered a heart attack, stroke, or even COVID popped up daily from many ‘reliable sources.’ There was even concern he had died, leaving North Korea rudderless. Finally, Kim was seen in public, speculation disappeared, and the world moved on.
A few months later and here we are again. On the verge of another episode of North Korean Soap Opera.
To be fair, there is something going on in the North. The problem is that when it comes to North Korea’s internal politics there are very few analysts, and experts able to accurately read the tea leaves.