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.
Indications from the Persian Gulf region point towards a growing likelihood of Iranian action as the one-year anniversary of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination approaches. Tension between the US and Iran have been on the rise in recent weeks, as we have discussed recently. Over the last few days, however, signs of Iranian military preparations have become known. Air defenses, naval units, and security forces inside of Iran have increased their alert levels. The air defense revisions, curiously enough, include more combat air patrols over Natanz and other nuclear facilities in central Iran. Add to that the recent reports from the intelligence community advancing the theory that construction at the Natanz facility is presently ramping up.
In short, Iranian action is expected on or around 3 January. If it materializes, the United States has stated a military response will be forthcoming. Some critics of the US have wasted little time in branding potential military action against Iran a last gasp by the Trump administration. Others have warned that the administration is determined to leave US-Iran relations severely damaged so the incoming Biden administration will be unable to resurrect US involvement in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCOPA).
On Wednesday US B-52 bombers undertook another show-of-force mission in the region. For the third time since late November, B-52s have flown within 50-70 miles of Iranian airspace. The latest mission was a 36-hour sortie that saw the -52s take off from Minot AFB in North Dakota, fly to the Persian Gulf region and then return home. The purpose of these missions is to showcase US airpower to both allies and adversaries. In this instance, there are assuredly many men watching carefully from Tehran.
A US Navy destroyer transiting the Taiwan Strait today had a considerable number of watchers accompanying her. Chinese warships and aircraft closely monitored the Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Mustin as she sailed through the tense waters separating China from Taiwan. Mustin was conducting a Freedom of Navigation (FON) exercise run to remind China of the US commitment to free and open sea movement in the Western Pacific. The destroyer was observing international law closely during the transit and not taking any actions which could be considered provocative.
China had a different opinion, however. Reuters has reported the Chinese government accused the US of provocation and a statement released by the Chinese military supports this claim. FON missions “deliberately raise the temperature of the Taiwan issue, as they fear calm in the Taiwan Strait, and send flirtatious glances to Taiwan independence forces, seriously jeopardizing peace and stability in the strait.”
It was the location of the FON exercise that has concerned China most. US Navy warships have moved through the Taiwan Strait over a dozen times in the past year, leading Beijing to worry that a US-Taiwan military relationship is currently in the making. China vehemently opposes such a relationship now at a time when it is concerned Taiwan could be planning to declare its independence. At present, China views Taiwan as a breakaway province destined to be reattached to the mainland at some point in the future. Preferably by peaceful means. In recent months, however, China has been rattling its saber with increasingly vexatious and regular military exercises around Taiwan.
There is a growing level of concern in Taiwan that the incoming Biden administration will adopt a less aggressive stance against China’s expansionist aims compared to the Trump administration. This change, some government officials in Taipei worry, could persuade Beijing to move against Taiwan within the next 12 to 15 months.
The Trump administration is reportedly moving forward with sanctions over Turkey’s purchase of the SA-21 Growler (S-400 to amateurs. Professionals use the NATO designation) SAM systems. According to a US official the announcement will be made later today. Sanctions have long been threatened for the Turkish decision to buy the Russian air defense system, but the US was reluctant to pull the trigger. Instead, Turkey’s part in the F-35 Lightning II program was minimized. Further, it was prohibited from purchasing the advanced warplane as a further penalty instead.
Now the Trump administration is apparently ready to pull the trigger on sanctions, a move that will almost assuredly add more pressure to US-Turkey relations and affect the floundering Turkish economy. The coming set of sanctions, according to administration sources, will be specific in its targeting. Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries, and its head are expected to bear the brunt. When news of possible sanctions started to circulate, the Turkish lira felt the effect and weakened by 1.4%. Turkey’s economy is already on the ropes now. The COVID-19 related slowdown, inflation, and depleted foreign reserves.
This move also puts the Biden administration in a position where it will almost certainly have to keep the pressure on Turkey through the coming months. That might not be an issue for the incoming president since he has spoke in the past about adopting a harder line with regards to Turkey and its leadership.
The United States is in the process of downsizing the staff of its embassy in Baghdad and other diplomatic facilities around Iraq. The Trump administration is taking the action in light of rising tensions with Iran. The recent death of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and the approaching one-year anniversary of Qasem Soleimani’s death are the catalysts for the spike in tensions. According to a State Department official, the reduction will not be permanent. The number of diplomats and staff members expected to depart Iraq has not been released, nor have any other specifics. U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Matthew Tueller will remain at his post for the time being.
The US embassy in Baghdad was targeted by Iranian-aligned militias earlier in the year, prompting a threat by President Trump to close the embassy indefinitely. The closure never came about, yet the threat was real enough to worry Iraq’s leadership, which has been striving to maintain profitable relationships with both Iran, and the United States.
The Trump administration continues to place sanctions on Iran for the purpose of undermining Tehran’s efforts to further progress on its nuclear program. As an added incentive, the administration is hoping further sanctions will make it increasingly difficult for an incoming Biden administration to return the US to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCOPA). Even though Biden’s foreign policy advisers seem to be giving the impression that a Biden administration’s first challenge will be China, recent moves by Tehran make it clear that Iran and its nuclear ambitions could demand the new administration’s full attention very early on.