As the tide starts to turn on the COVID-1 pandemic in the United States, so too is the tone of the Trump Administration. With the darkest days likely behind us, the focus is being centered on China, and the many unanswered questions about its discreditable efforts to contain COVID-19 in the early days of the Wuhan outbreak. More directly, President Trump continues to stand by his belief that the coronavirus outbreak originated in a Chinese lab. He has repeated the claim publicly in recent days, and at the same time it has become widely known that US intelligence is conducting a deep investigation to determine the origins of the Wuhan coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. According to the president, an investigation is also underway taking a hard look at how the Chinese government dealt with the virus in the early stages of the outbreak.
To make the relationship between the world’s two most powerful nations even more strained, Trump administration officials are beginning to look at possible punishments for China’s handling of the pandemic. The most significant proposal so far is stripping the PRC of its ‘sovereign immunity’ which would give the US government, and victims of the pandemic the ability to sue China for damages. Another proposal being floated is the US cancelling part of its debt obligation to the PRC. This step would be more trouble than its worth, however. Holding off on interest payments would create serious drag for the dollar and with the global economy in flux due to the pandemic, now is not the ideal time for such a move.
In any event, it is clear now that the United States is moving to put the crosshairs on China. It will be interesting to see what the final results of the investigation are, and how the US decides to respond at the end of the day.
Some things never change. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, animosity between Iran and the United States continue on. Now it appears as if tension between the two nations is on the rise again after President Trump’s warnings on Wednesday. Trump warned Iran and its proxies against attacking US troops in Iraq. The president spoke of receiving information which suggested a sneak attack against US forces could be in the works. On Twitter, Trump posted the following: “Upon information and belief, Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on US troops and/or assets in Iraq. If this happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price, indeed!” The president did not elaborate further on the information mentioned in his post.
Hours before Trump’s tweet, Iran had earlier warned the US about taking provocative actions in Iraq. General Yahya Rahim Safavi made the statement and concluded with, “Any US action will mark an even larger strategic failure in the current president’s record.” Given the context of the statements coming out of Tehran and Washington it is safe to assume that some type of action against US troops in Iraq has at least been considered by Iran’s leadership.
Meanwhile, Iran continues to suffer tremendously from the COVID-19 pandemic. 3,000 Iranians have died from the virus, and nearly 50,000 are confirmed to be infected. The situation has grown so bad inside of Iran that the UN, and China have asked the US to ease sanctions on Iran for the time being. The Trump administration did offer humanitarian aid to Iran in order to help the nation contend with the coronavirus outbreak but Tehran rejected the offer.
With the multitude of problems facing Iran right now its difficult to believe the government could be looking for trouble. Yet if Iran’s leaders view the United States as being overly distracted by the pandemic, it could sense an opportunity developing to inflict damage upon US forces in Iraq and possibly get away with it.
The Chinese Communist Party’s latest propaganda offensive has targeted the United States squarely in the stars and stripes. This week has seen Chinese government officials, and media representatives come out and directly attack the US, and purposely spread misinformation about COVID-19. Beijing is now attempting to deny that the virus started in Wuhan, and has in fact blamed the US for creating the virus, and subsequent outbreak. China’s reason for this shift in propaganda tactics is producing a number of theories that are not outside the realm of possibility. One theory is that China is attempting to flip responsibility for COVID-19 on the US because its now fragile global reputation cannot absorb another hit. The Chinese government is reeling from a number of policy failures, and misjudgments over the past two years. Another is that the Chinese government plans to use the COVID-19 crisis as the basis for a renewed propaganda offensive that will debilitate America’s global power. This theory holds some water too.
A third theory has been quietly circulating. In recent days it has started to gain some momentum. It is that the Chinese government’s extensive propaganda efforts against the US are for the benefit of a domestic audience, not an international one. A sizeable chunk of Chinese citizens are troubled by the actions their government took to fight the COVID-19 outbreak. With all of the other problems on its plate, the Chinese government does not need internal discontent to rise. It makes sense to try and lay the blame on the US, conveniently providing Beijing with a scapegoat.
There are also reports that not everyone in the Chinese Communist Party is happy with President Xi Jinping’s actions with regard to handling the coronavirus. However, it is fair to say that any discontent over Xi is probably not limited solely to his coronavirus response. The Hong Kong unrest, and slowing economy have also contributed as well. Although Xi’s hold on power may appear to be complete, it will take but the slightest misstep for him, and everything he’s built to collapse.
That could be a main reason why the Chinese government now seems so desperate to pin the blame for COVID-19 on the US.
A few weeks ago concern and speculation about North Korea’s alleged ‘Christmas Surprise’ was reaching a fever pitch. Following the attack on the US embassy in Baghdad, and the US killing of Qasem Soleimani, global attention shifted to the latest crisis with Iran. Now that tensions with Tehran appear to be settling down, albeit temporarily in all likelihood, North Korea will come back into focus. One of the conversations starting to swirl around Washington DC right now is based on whether or not Kim Jong Un will take any lessons away from the latest US-Iran confrontation.
The Trump administration acted decisively on Iran over the past week. A major confrontation with Iran was avoided, although the US was prepared to retaliate against Iran if its attacks against two airbases in Iraq had produced US casualties. The Iranian regime looked at the gameboard and wisely decided to step away. President Trump reiterated his promise to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, yet in the next breath he left the door open to future negotiations.
What conclusions should Pyongyang deduce from the Trump administration’s handling of Iran? More important, how will it affect the present state of the US-North Korean relationship? Considering the mindset of the current North Korean leader and his closest ministers, Kim Jong Un could regard the killing of Soleimani as a warning not to provoke the US with more long-range missile tests. On the flip side, Kim could view the US preoccupation with events in the Middle East as an opportunity for North Korea to continue building its nuclear deterrent. Unfortunately for Kim, he laid out a detailed plan of action for the upcoming year at the meeting of the Central Committee in late December. He declared an end to the moratorium on long range missile and nuclear tests, and hinted on the coming of a ‘new strategic weapon.’ Despite the fact he is the supreme leader of North Korea, Kim could be compelled to follow the path he personally laid out even though the strategic conditions may have already shifted. Although the North Korean government appears to the world to be uniform in ideology, and loyalty to Kim, rival factions do exist and the leader could be feeling some pressure from a handful of these, especially those holding influence over the nation’s military.
The world waits anxiously for Iran’s response to the US killing of General Qasem Soleimani on Friday. Iran’s leaders wasted little time vowing revenge against the United States, and punctuating those words with symbolic acts designed to inflame the passions of the Iranian people, and of Muslims worldwide. Today, Iran raised a red flag over the Holy Dome Jamkarān Mosque as a representation of a severe battle to come. At this point Iran is almost entirely obligated to retaliate, and Tehran understands this. Soleimani was a senior member of the regime, and largely responsible for the expansion of Iranian influence across the Middle East. His death cannot go unanswered.
As Iran considers its next move, the US intelligence community, and the Pentagon are trying to locate clues which might give a hint about what is coming, when, and where. Iran’s fiery rhetoric in the last 24 hours makes it clear emotions are running high. Statements about striking vital US targets have filled the airwaves, and world wide web. Tehran’s first instinct has likely been to strike a high-value, high-visibility US target in the region. An attack that will put the United States, and the world on notice, as well as showcase Iran’s capabilities.
Unfortunately for the regime in Tehran, its eyes are bigger than its stomach. If it wants to challenge the US militarily in the Persian Gulf region, the fight will be brief and the end result not in Iran’s favor. Since late spring, the US has been quietly building up its forces in the region in dribs and drabs. A handful of fighters here, a battery of Patriots there. The media has been so obsessed with the impeachment soap opera in Washington that it has barely noticed the movement of forces. Suffice to say, the US has enough hardware on hand around the Persian Gulf to fulfill a host of offensive, and defensive operations should Iran decide to respond militarily, and on a large scale.
On Friday, Iran declared a three-day public mourning period for Soleimani’s death. Once it draws to an close, Iran probably will not waste much time before retaliating. Until then, the waiting game goes on.