There has been a considerable amount of speculation and debate concerning the recently announced plan to reduce the number of US troops stationed in Germany by half. On one side is the almost customary argument that such a move will weaken NATO, strengthen Russia’s military position, and generally have a negative effect on American national security. We have seen and heard this argument presented a multitude of times since the 90s. It has never really held water, at least not to the level that its proponents would be satisfied with. A second argument being made loudly these days, especially by President Trump’s detractors, is that the planned withdrawal is a politically motivated move. Well, it was partly, and the Trump administration has made no bones about it. The fact is that one of the main reasons for this troop reduction is Germany’s failure to meet NATO’s defense spending goals. In 2014 NATO set a standard for its member-states to halt defense budget cuts and begin moving back towards spending 2% of their GNP by 2024. President Trump has said himself that until Germany pays more for its own defense, US troop levels will be reduced. He has left open the possibility of reversing the reduction plan if Germany starts to devote more money towards its military. To add insult to injury at least half of the troops set to be removed from Germany will find new homes in other European nations from Belgium, and Italy to Poland.
The mention of Poland brings up a third argument, and one that I personally stand behind. The US move is the latest component in what has been a consistent trend towards Eastern Europe for the US military. Deterring Russia has become a top priority for the US, and NATO in recent years. As a result, more US units are being based in Eastern Europe, right now mainly on a rotational basis however there are also permanent bases being constructed, and opened in places such as Romania, and Poland. So it makes sense to move troops, units, and facilities from Germany to Eastern Europe where the combat units will be better able to conduct their mission of deterring Russia, and support elements will be nearer to those combat units.
I have wanted to discuss this topic since the Pentagon made the first announcements about a possible troop reduction in Germany back in June. Unfortunately, Asia has been receiving the lion’s share of geopolitical focus lately. But with July coming to a close, and the subject receiving some attention from the media in recent days, I felt this was an opportune time to get some of my thoughts on the matter written up and placed out there for consumption. 😊
Since late June a series of explosions and fires in Iran have gained attention from around the world. The explosions occurred at an X-ray lab in Tehran, a missile base at Parchin, a power plant in Ahvaz, an area that is home to Iran’s Arab minority, and most recently, the enrichment facility at Natanz. At first glance it is readily apparent that at least two of the above-mentioned sites are components of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Natanz alone has garnered headlines in the past when the US-Israel Stuxnet computer virus caused severed damage to the centrifuge program going on there. So, given that a major explosion took place at Natanz last week, and the facility is still the center of Iran’s centrifuge efforts it would be fair to assume that Iran’s nuclear program is once again in someone’s crosshairs.
2020 has not been kind to Iran thus far. The year started with the death of IRGC major general Qasem Soleimani at the hands of a US drone. Iran’s retaliatory missile strike against an airbase in Iraq being used by US troops was ineffective, and inadvertently led to the shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner by an Iranian air defense unit. US economic sanctions continue to have a detrimental effect. Then there is the Covid-19 pandemic, which Iran has had considerable difficulty bringing under control. Now on top of all that, a new effort is likely underway to incapacitate Iran’s nuclear efforts.
Even more significant than determining who could be responsible is asking why it is even necessary. The sensible answer is that Iran is once again making progress in centrifuge production, a step that more than one nation-state has deemed to be unacceptable. The Iranian government has been vociferous in declaring it will soon no longer observe the JCOPA in light of the US removing itself from the deal, and Europe’s inability to garner sanction relief on behalf of Iran from the Trump administration. The US could conceivably be responsible for the recent explosions and fires, seeking to contain Iran’s centrifuge progress. Then there is Israel, which has been conducting a low-key effort against Iranian targets in Syria for months now. The Israeli position on the Iranian nuclear program is well known, and it is well inside the realm of possibility for Tel Aviv to be behind the explosion at Natanz at least.
Iranian leadership is under growing pressure to respond after Natanz. The hardliner majority in the nation’s parliament is becoming loud with demands, however, for the moment the regime seems content to invoke the JCPOA dispute mechanism and play the waiting game until US elections in November. It goes without saying that Tehran would prefer to contend with a Biden administration in the coming years rather than continuing to deal with the more hawkish Trump administration. Therefore, Iran will likely be careful not to spark an incident, or crisis that President Trump can use to his advantage on the campaign trail this fall.
Chinese air and naval activity around Taiwan has risen considerably in the month of June. On Friday Chinese warplanes conducted exercises in the airspace off the southwestern coast of Taiwan. This was the eighth time in June that these exercises took place. While the number of exercises this year is comparable to the same time last year, the recent increase could be the first steps towards an escalation in the area if continued. Given the ongoing standoff between China and India, and the rising tensions between Beijing and Washington, it is only fair to assume the exercises off Taiwan serve a much larger purpose beyond rattling Taipei’s cage. A message is also being sent to the United States through these exercises: Stop strengthening ties with Taiwan.
The US has been increasing economic ties to Taiwan over the past few years, and the Trump administration regularly cites Taiwan as being a model democracy. On the surface, Beijing continues to work towards a peaceful, uncoerced reunification with Taiwan, which it considers a breakaway province. Last year President Xi Jinping called for reunification model under a ‘one country, two systems’ model similar to what China has in place with Hong Kong. Understandably, the Taiwanese people are not warm to that proposal after what has taken place in Hong Kong in the last twelve months.
These exercises are a thinly veiled message for the US to keep its distance from Taiwan and not intervene in what Beijing considers an internal matter. They also serve as a warning that if push comes to shove, China is capable of isolating Taiwan from US bases in Okinawa and Guam, which is where the first wave of reinforcements would come from in the event of a crisis.
With China now active on several fronts, how it maneuvers with regards to Taiwan in the next two weeks will be telling. If Beijing increases the heat in the South China Sea, or Himalayas, will it do the same with Taiwan? And if so, how will the US respond?
China’s latest power move with regards to Hong Kong’s autonomy has prompted the White House to warn that the US might respond by placing heavy economic sanctions on China. On Friday China introduced draft legislation at the annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) that will tighten Beijing’s control of Hong Kong, while simultaneously draining away a large portion of the city-state’s sovereignty. The legislation will introduce national security law in Hong Kong aimed at rooting out secession, subversion, terrorism, and foreign interference. In part this will be achieved by granting Beijing power to set up institutions in the city responsible for ‘defending national security.’ In other words, national law enforcement, and intelligence agencies will operate inside of Hong Kong along with the city’s own law enforcement apparatus.
Voting on the bill is set to take place on 28 May.
Details of the legislation are light for the moment, but many activists, and Hong Kong residents fear the end of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, and a coming crackdown on the civil liberties of all Hong Kongers. The White House has taken the position that the draft legislation violates the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and will trigger sanctions. US officials have already started coming out against the legislation, and its likely President Trump will address the matter following the holiday weekend.
Thousands of Hong Kong residents took to the streets on Sunday protesting the planned law. The protests became violent at times and Hong Kong police used tear gas, and water cannons against the protesters. The demonstration was unauthorized by city officials, and went ahead in violation of the city’s social distancing regulations. As the vote date draws nearer these protests will almost certainly grow in size, and determination. With the future now cast in doubt, many young Hong Kong residents will have nothing to lose by letting the world know their feelings about what Beijing is attempting to do.
Relations between the United States and China were trending downward even before the COVID-19 pandemic appeared on the horizon. The Trump administration’s China policies have been a far cry from those of preceding administrations, and these policies have played a prime role in creating the toxic atmosphere between the US and China. Now, I am not a China apologist or anti-Trump pundit by any stretch of the imagination. Quite the opposite in fact. So when I say that the current administration’s policies have helped bring about the rift in relations, I am not assessing blame. Again, quite the opposite. 😊
From the start of President Trump’s first term he has played hardball with China on practically everything from trade disparities, to geopolitical matters. The Trump administration’s approach to China is a striking contrast from previous administrations. Whereas the Obama and Bush administrations chose to handle China with kid’s gloves, the Trump administration has come out armed with brass knuckles and swinging. Washington’s primary objective has been reestablishing strategic and economic parity between the US and China.
The hardline US stance shook Beijing, and the Chinese government has been on the defensive practically since January, 2017. In many regards it has been trying to play catch up to the Trump administration in the geopolitical, and economic arenas but without much success. To complicate matters even more, China has been contending with alarming domestic issues even before COVID-19 came into existence. Economic growth was coming to a halt for the first time in decades. This has been exacerbated by the global pandemic, and now it appears the Chinese economy will almost certainly shrink for the first time in decades. Hong Kong erupted in protests last June over an extradition bill allowing the transfer of fugitives to mainland China. Months of protests and violence followed, transitioning to pure political upheaval for a period of time. The pandemic has brought an end to the protesting, but it is temporary. When the world returns to normal the protests will resume again. China has yet to figure out an effective solution to the Hong Kong matter.
The global pandemic has also contributed to the emerging new dynamic in US-China relations. Washington has challenged China’s handling of the initial outbreak, accused it of undermining the World Health Organization, and questioned the numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths released by China. Beijing’s response has been a mishmash of propaganda, thinly veiled threats, and attempts to distract world attention from the case Washington is trying to make. When the world emerges from the global pandemic, US-China relations are going to be centerstage. For better or worse, the new form of the relationship is presently being shaped by current events. If the US-Chinese dialogue in recent weeks is a sign of what’s to come, relations could be looking at a deep freeze in the not-to-distant future.