Taiwanese concern over continued Chinese military exercises and activity in and around Taiwan Strait is once again becoming apparent. Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, while conducting an interview with Stan Grant of Australia’s ABC News program The World voiced his belief that the risk of a military conflict in that area is increasing. Through the summer and fall months of 2020, when world attention was focused elsewhere, Chinese naval and air activity in the Taiwan Strait area was extensive. Wu went on to say that Taiwan’s government is now ‘very concerned’ about the prospects of a Chinese invasion of the island. China’s increased military posture around Taiwan comes as part of multiple Chinese moves beyond its borders. From leashing Hong Kong and dragging it fully into the Chinese sphere of influence, to the territorial expansions into the South China and East China seas.
Taiwan faces an uncertain future at the moment. Its close relationship with the United States will become even more valuable through the next four years. A Biden administration is not going to provide Taiwan with the material support that the Trump administration has. Nor will it stand firmly behind Taiwan as a counterbalance to recent Chinese actions and behavior in the Western Pacific. Although Joe Biden claims his administration will continue to support Taiwan, a look back at the relationships that the Obama, and Bush administrations had with Taiwan earlier in the century show that Taipei has valid reason to worry.
Even now as relations between Beijing and other powers in the Western Pacific have turned sour it provides no advantage for Taiwan. In the event of a large-scale PRC military operation against the island, Taiwan will have no formal allies it can turn to for assistance. Historically, the United States is the only friend it can rely on in the event of a crisis. But with Joe Biden sadly likely to take power in January, 2021, even that is no longer a guarantee.
China’s rhetoric has become noticeably sharper, and more bellicose in recent days as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continues his tour through Asia. The goal of Pompeo’s trip has been to build more support for containing China. Predictably, this has angered Beijing and represents another thorn in US-China relations, which have deteriorated considerably over the last 12 months. Now Taiwan is offering another outlet for China to vent its anger towards. On Tuesday, the Taiwanese Kuomintang Party (KMT) started applying pressure on the Taiwanese government to reestablish formal relations with the United States.
“The only way forward is for the mainland to fully prepare itself for war and to give Taiwan secessionist forces a decisive punishment at any time,” Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Chinese state-sponsored Global Times, wrote in Wednesday’s column. “As the secessionist forces’ arrogance continues to swell, the historical turning point is getting closer.”
While the Global Times is not a mouthpiece for the Chinese government, it is in alignment with its policies. So the column should not be taken lightly by Taipei, or Washington.
China has been relentless with the amount of military pressure it has applied against Taiwan lately. On a regular basis Chinese warplanes and other types of military aircraft have challenged Taiwan’s air defense identification zones. PLAN and PLAF aircraft approach Taiwanese airspace, forcing Taiwan to scramble fighters and intercept. China is hoping the frequent flights is having a negative effect on Taiwan’s military readiness, however, it is fair to surmise that they could be having the opposite effect.
Taiwan is hoping for a Trump reelection victory in November. The Trump administration’s criticism of China’s expansionism and human rights violations have proven to Taipei that it has a genuine friend in President Trump. A Biden victory, given his soft record on China, could encourage Beijing to strangle Taiwan economically, in preparation for a military move against the island at some point after.
On Monday the Trump administration announced a new series of sanctions against Iran, the latest phase in the US campaign to exert maximum pressure on Tehran. The latest batch of sanctions will target Iran’s weapons manufacturing industry. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the action today at a joint press conference with the principal members of the Trump administration’s national security team. President Trump had earlier signed an executive order related to the sanctions.
“Today, I will take the first action under this new executive order by sanctioning the Iranian Ministry of Defense and armed forces logistics and Iran’s defense industries organization and its director,” Pompeo said.
The announcement comes as the UN General Assembly kicks off in New York City. This year, the gathering will be like no other in the UN’s history due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the diplomatic interaction and speeches will come through digital means. The renewal of UN-sponsored sanctions against Iran was expected to be a topic for discussion at the General Assembly but under the circumstances it no longer appears probable.
Iran’s currency reacted to a previous US announcements earlier in the weekend that all UN sanctions against Iran had been restored. The rial hit a record low on Sunday owing largely to Iranian-US tensions. The rial has lost roughly half of its value in 2020.
Adding to the tense atmosphere is the appearance of the USS Nimitz carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf to conduct operations in close proximity to the Iranian coast. Nimitz and her escorts transited the Strait of Hormuz late last week, and is the first US aircraft carrier to operate within the Gulf since November, 2019.
With less than a day remaining until app stores in the United States remove TikTok and WeChat, China is now considering punishing US tech corporations with sanctions. Apple and Google were the two major tech companies mentioned, but any future sanctions would not be restricted to those two. The Chinese Commerce Ministry also stated today that it is considering adding Apple and Google to its “Unreliable Entities List” which is essentially a corporate blacklist. Companies on the list are restricted from investing in China, or engaging in trade with the Chinese market. Beijing has threatened sanctions and similar actions against US companies in the past, and as Sino-US relations continue to fray, the threatened sanctions grow bolder.
These moves seem to indicate that China is prepared to retaliate and risk an escalation. TikTok and WeChat are two popular Chinese apps. Their use contains grave national security implications for the US as it is believed that user information can be accessed by the Chinese government. The US government, along with many companies that do work with it, has banned its workers from using TikToc and WeChat. The apps parent companies have failed to address the issue to the satisfaction of the White House. WeChat has come under fire by the US government for being a platform for Chinese-language disinformation and can be subject to censorship by the Chinese government.
This weekend Iran came out and fiercely condemned Bahrain’s intention to normalize relations with Israel. On Friday Bahrain announced a deal along similar lines to last month’s deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates at the behest of the United States. That makes two Gulf State Arab nations set to establish full relations with Israel. Yesterday Iran called the move shameful and ignominious. The Iranian Foreign Ministry said Bahrain’s normalization “will remain in the historical memory of the oppressed and downtrodden people of Palestine and the world’s free nations forever.” If that were not enough, the Iranian Republican Guards labeled the move a betrayal of the Palestinian people, and a “threat to security in West Asia and the Muslim world.”
Iran is not only outraged, but also significantly worried about the direction of events in the Persian Gulf region. Two neighboring nation-states are on the road to making peace with Israel. Right now, Iranian leaders are no doubt wondering what nation will be next, fervently hoping it will not be Saudi Arabia, its regional rival. It would appear, however, that negotiations between Israel and the Saudis are underway. It would not be unrealistic to see them normalize relations by the beginning of 2021. The Kuwaitis, also in discussions with Israel, could be ready to announce a deal next month. Qatar’s position at present is unknown, but the Trump administration is likely making inroads there.
Make no mistake about it, the Trump administration’s goal here is to place Iran in a box that it cannot escape from. US pressure has been increasing on a number of fronts since 2017 and the Iranian regime knows the walls are closing in. Now, with neighboring Arab states making peace with Israel, Iran’s position in Syria will become more precarious. That affects its position in Beirut, which at the moment is not as secure as it was twelve months ago.
Iran’s reaction to the UAE and Bahrain will not be limited to words. At some point in the coming weeks expect to see tensions rise in the Persian Gulf. Another tanker hijacking incident off the Emirates is probable, or a renewed Iranian threat to close off the Strait of Hormuz. It is no likely, however, that these or any similar moves will derail the prospect of US-backed peace breaking out in the Persian Gulf.