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Will China and the US go to war over Taiwan?

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Annexing Taiwan is the number one task for the People’s Liberation Army.

The US position on Taiwan seems to me to be ambiguous in a way that’s helped keep the peace for decades.

Taiwan’s military is no match for China’s.

China says it will fight rather than allow Taiwan to become independent.

China is rising to superpower status. And as it does so it’s showing more and more attention towards reclaiming territory that it has long regarded as its own. This can be seen in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and along its Himalayan border with India.

The tensions in all these areas are increasing the focus on Taiwan, a self-governing island of 22m people that Beijing regards as its sacred territory. China says it will fight rather than allow Taiwan to become independent. Recently, it’s increased its military exercises near Taiwan.

And unusually, some official Chinese newspapers have been mentioning Taiwan in the context of the Korean war, which China says it was drawn into against its will in the 1950s.

Worryingly, some commentators appear to prepare a similar argument about the present situation. We’re seeing disinformation being spread about alleged provocative moves by the US and Taiwan, which hawkish Chinese commentators then seize upon to call for military action against Taiwan.

China’s armed forces and government have also started describing military drills close to Taiwan as necessary to protect national sovereignty. They allege that the US is upending stability and that Beijing has no choice but to defend its interests.

So Kathrin, what’s the feeling at the moment in Taiwan about the recent manoeuvres by China’s People’s Liberation Army in the waters around Taiwan?

Taiwan really has been rattled this time around. Of course, summer, especially July and August, is the traditional season for military exercises also around here. And Chinese military capabilities have been growing rapidly. Of course the armed forces would want to master this new equipment and train on it.

Also, annexing Taiwan is the number one task for the People’s Liberation Army. And therefore, it’s not surprising that we are seeing operations around here. What is surprising however, or what is abnormal actually, is that China is abandoning, or appears to be abandoning, the practises that kept the peace in the Taiwan Strait for decades. And the political language out of Beijing is getting harsher and harsher.

By and large, Beijing and Taipei both respected the Taiwan Strait Median Line. This line is an unofficial dividing line proposed by the US more than 60 years ago. In March last year Beijing violated that line for the first time in 20 years. And since then the PLA air force has crossed it at least five more times.

Earlier this year Chinese forces did even a night-time exercise right on the edge of that median line for the first time. And more recently, in September, the PLA held a two-day large scale manoeuvre on Taiwan’s side of the strait.

This kind of activity is called grey zone operations. They don’t constitute a breach of international law. They are not an act of war. But they instigate fear in Taiwan society because they remind the country that this standing threat China has had to invade if Taiwan doesn’t toe the line, that this threat might actually be real.

Of course, the tensions in this arena are not limited to Taiwan and China alone. The other big player is the United States. And the US position on Taiwan seems to me to be ambiguous in a way that’s helped keep the peace for decades.

On the one hand, it doesn’t recognise Taiwan as a country. But on the other hand, it does supply weapons for Taiwan’s defence that help Taiwan maintain its de facto status as an independent state. But it now looks to me, Kathrin, as if this so-called strategic ambiguity is fraying a bit.

If we look back, the beauty of this ambiguous policy was that it long worked to deter China from aggression because China couldn’t be sure what Washington would do in case it attacked Taiwan. And the policy, on the other hand, worked to discourage Taiwan from political moves that could have raised tensions, for example to officially declare the independence it, in fact, already has.

Now there’s a growing debate in Washington over whether the deterrence bit of this equation still works. The People’s Liberation Army has, in some respects, become a peer for the US military, at least in Asia and the Western Pacific. So some US lawmakers, military experts, and some China hawks are calling for Washington to make its commitment to Taiwan’s defence more explicit.

At the end of August, Washington declassified a set of documents that contain assurances to Taipei that its security support would continue. The US also publicly stated that it does not take a position on sovereignty over Taiwan. And it said that certain of its agreements with Beijing were premised on China taking a peaceful approach to Taiwan.

That move, for some China hawks and Taiwan supporters in Washington, has worked like a dog whistle. They believe that in the light of China’s more aggressive stance, all bets are off and the US could move much further.

The other factor in all of this is the changing view within China of China’s place in the world and the growing influence of the People’s Liberation Army on Chinese politics. This has been a long-run thing. But certainly, since Xi Jinping took over in 2012, Beijing’s growing assertiveness has been very clear.

According to President Xi, China has, in the last 70 years since the communist revolution, managed to stand up, get rich, and become strong. And now, he says, it’s time for China to take its place at the centre of world affairs.

There is now a realistic debate about whether China could actually win a war over Taiwan, something that had long been considered impossible. I think the single most important reason for this change is the immense progress the PLA has made in modernising itself.

If you look back, China increased defence spending by double digits for more than 20 years straight. And although that rate of growth has now slowed down, Beijing keeps outspending Taipei on the military by a factor of 15. So at first sight Taiwan’s military is no match for China’s.

At the same time, China acquired a large arsenal of intermediate range missiles with which it can hit US aircraft carriers and US military bases in the region, from Japan all the way to Guam, the US territory in the Western Pacific.

Therefore, Taiwan under growing pressure from the US, has pledged to adopt an asymmetric way of fighting. It would use many cheap, mobile, distributed weapons to make it as difficult and costly for the PLA as possible to take out its defences.

With that strategy it could take advantage of Taiwan’s geography. Two-thirds of the island are mountainous. And large stretches of its coast are unsuitable for bringing an army ashore. They are either sheer cliffs or mud flats.

Given that there are only a handful of beaches where an amphibious landing is possible, it would probably need to rely on other ways. One example would be trying to take out Taiwan’s air defences first and then grabbing a port or air dropping special forces in. If Beijing wanted to invade Taiwan it has been estimated that it would need up to one million soldiers. And even after enough soldiers had come ashore, they would face a formidable fight to control all of Taiwan and keep it under control.

Judging from how challenging that is, some defence experts believe that China has a different playbook – coercion. Instead of a full-scale invasion the PLA could keep raising military threats and pressure on Taiwan, maybe seize an offshore island just to make its case and prove that it can, or conduct cyber attacks and add on an embargo on maritime trade until public morale is so shaken and so weakened that the government in Taipei would agree to negotiate.

So the short answer is that we don’t know what is going to happen. The PLA is a formidable threat. But on the other hand, they may not be there quite yet.



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Analysis

Iranian TV action thriller delivers warning to Zarif

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It is hardly surprising that Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister and nuclear negotiator, is not a fan of Gando, a popular television drama that depicts an incompetent minister who scuppers nuclear talks with world powers by hiring dual nationals who turn out to be spies for MI6.

The series — made by an institute believed to be affiliated to the elite and hardline Revolutionary Guards — “is a lie from the beginning to the end” that “damages foreign policy more than me” by fuelling public mistrust, Zarif said.

By focusing on the nuclear talks, the Guards’ motive goes beyond creating compelling drama, reformist analysts say. Iran is in discussion with western powers about reviving the nuclear deal, a key reformist achievement, and hardliners want to deter the popular foreign minister from declaring his interest in the presidency in what is a crucial election year.

“I’ll be grateful to Gando-makers to let us continue our current job,” Zarif said this month, and commented that he would not run for the presidency.

The possibility of nuclear talks with the US and other powers has complicated an already fraught Iranian political scene ahead of the June election. Many reformists are pinning their hopes on Iran’s top diplomat to reinvigorate the nuclear deal and boost support at the ballot box. Hardliners might prefer to negotiate the deal themselves after the election. The polls are also seen as particularly crucial in case supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 81, dies during the next president’s term.

Pendar Akbari, left, and Ashkan Delavari, right, in a scene from ‘Gando’
Pendar Akbari, left, and Ashkan Delavari, right, in a scene from an episode of ‘Gando’. The series title refers to an Iranian crocodile able to distinguish its friends from its enemies © Bahar Asgari/Shahid Avini Cultural and Artistic Institute via AP

The purpose of Gando, which refers to an Iranian crocodile able to distinguish its friends from its enemies, “is to tell Zarif that should he dare to announce his candidacy, he will be destroyed immediately,” said one reformist analyst. “When the intelligence service of the Guards truly believes in the Gando plot lines, it means even if Zarif decides to defy such warnings, he will not be allowed to run.”

Centrist president Hassan Rouhani is due to step down this year after two terms and it is not yet clear who the presidential candidates will be. Politicians register as late as May and then have to be vetted by the Guardian Council, the hardline constitutional watchdog, which can disqualify nominees. Potential hardline candidates include Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the parliament speaker and a former guards commander; Ebrahim Raisi, the judiciary chief; and Ali Larijani, a former speaker of parliament. On the reformist side, speculation has centred on Es’haq Jahangiri, first vice-president, Hassan Khomeini, a grandson of the founder of the Islamic republic, and Zarif.

A US-educated career diplomat widely respected in the west for his pragmatism, Zarif was instrumental in the historic deal in 2015, under which Iran curbed its nuclear activity in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. But Donald Trump abandoned the accord in 2018, imposed sanctions, including on Zarif, and said he would pursue a new accord to contain Iran’s regional and military policies. The US move emboldened hardliners, confirming to them the untrustworthiness of the US.

Zarif’s background in the US both as a university student and as Iran’s head of mission at the UN — during which he met US politicians including then senator Joe Biden — has long made him a source of suspicion for hardliners.

This wariness of both Zarif and the west is evident to viewers of Gando, as is the heroism of the Revolutionary Guards. Mohammad, the action hero protagonist, warns that western negotiators may sabotage refineries as part of nuclear talks. Mohammad works out of elaborate facilities akin to those in a James Bond film. The fictional foreign minister is advised by a media adviser, the main culprit, “to enter into direct talks with the US and accept the conditions of the leader of the global village”.

Vahid Rahbani in a scene from an episode of ‘Gando’
Vahid Rahbani in a scene from an episode of ‘Gando’. State TV abruptly stopped broadcasting the series that was less than halfway through its 30-episode run © Hassan Hendi/Shahid Avini Cultural and Artistic Institute via AP

The dramatic scenes reflect, in part, the worldview of some of Zarif’s critics. “Reformists, Mr Zarif and his lobby group in Washington [Iranian dual nationals] should be wiped out from Iran’s politics,” said an aide to a senior hardline politician who is a potential presidential candidate. “We have to get rid of this cancerous tumour once for good.”

Gholamali Jafarzadeh, a former conservative member of parliament, said Zarif “is not a good statesman and should not run for president” while “reformists should know that their choices have no chance to be allowed to run”. 

This month, state TV abruptly stopped broadcasting the series that was less than halfway through its 30-episode run. Local media said broadcasts would resume when the presidential race was over. Iran’s centrist president Hassan Rouhani, whose signature achievement is the nuclear deal — alluded to the show on Wednesday and said “people’s money” should not be spent on “fabrication of the truth” and “distortion of facts”.

After three years of sanctions, many voters are disillusioned by the infighting and the prospect of real change, whatever the outcome of the election. “Whether Zarif or a figure more senior than him runs or not, I’m not going to vote,” said Hamid, a 40-year-old engineer. “Let the Guards win the election as they are the ones who are running the country anyway. Why shall I make a fool of myself?” 



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Rising inflation complicates Brazil’s Covid-19 crisis

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After seven months in lockdown, Michele Marques received some unwelcome news when she returned to work: while she was away the prices of almost all the products she uses as a hairdresser had soared.

“A box of gloves rose 200 per cent. Colouring products increased at least 100 per cent,” said the 37-year-old from São Paulo, underlining how costs were rising while her revenue had collapsed. “I had to raise the price of my services, too.”

It is a dynamic that is playing out across Brazil, adding an extra layer of complexity to the country’s coronavirus crisis, which has already claimed the lives of almost 350,000 individuals and pushed hospital services to the brink.

With much of Latin America’s largest economy being shuttered, inflation is surging to its highest level in years, fuelling a silent scourge of hunger among poorer citizens that has run in parallel to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The high price of staple foods — rice and beans, for example — has led to the disappearance of these items from the table of millions of Brazilians,” said Ana Maria Segall, a researcher at the Brazilian Research Network on Food and Nutritional Sovereignty and Security. In the 12 months to the end of March, the price of rice increased 64 per cent and black beans 51 per cent.

“In Brazil currently food inflation has penalised the very poorest, preventing them from having adequate access to food and in many situations leading to hunger,” she said, adding that rising unemployment and the curtailment of social programmes were also contributing factors.

Volunteers hand out food in São Paulo © Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

Less than half of Brazil’s population of 212m now has access to adequate food all the time, with 19m people, or 9 per cent of its inhabitants, facing hunger, according to a recent report by Segall’s group.

“I’m doing some odd jobs, but it’s not enough to keep us going,” said Jonathan, a 28-year-old who lost his job in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant in São Paulo when the pandemic began. He said he now struggles to provide enough food for his three young children and pregnant wife.

On a 12-month basis, inflation in June is expected to surpass 8 per cent, far above earlier estimates. In the 12 months to March, food prices jumped 18.5 per cent, while the price of agricultural commodities in local currency surged 55 per cent and the cost of fuel increased almost 92 per cent.

Line chart of Percentage increase over past 12 months showing The price of rice in Brazil is soaring

The developments pose a fresh challenge to President Jair Bolsonaro, who is already under fire for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Across Brazil’s biggest cities, graffiti has sprung up labelling the populist leader “Bolsocaro” — a portmanteau of his name and the Portuguese word for expensive.

The rising prices are also likely to provide useful ammunition to leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who returned to the political fray last month and may challenge Bolsonaro in elections next year.

“Bolsonaro is to blame for the increase in food prices, he is to blame for everything. They have to remove this guy,” said Maria Izabel de Jesus, a retiree from São Paulo.

Armando Castelar, a researcher at the Brazilian Institute of Economics, said the government had underestimated inflation both in terms of the numbers and also “how much a concern it should be”.

He attributed the rising prices to the devaluation of the Brazilian currency, triggered in part by the stimulus packages passed by the US government — which helped to bolster the dollar and led to higher Treasury yields — and the brighter economic outlook outside Latin America.

“You have a situation where commodity prices are going up because the global economy is going to grow a lot this year. With the growth in the US, interest rates are going up and the dollar is strengthening. This puts a lot of pressure on the exchange rate in Brazil and emerging markets in general,” he said.

As the spectre of inflation loomed last month, the Brazilian central bank raised its key interest rate by 75 basis points, higher than the half-percentage point many economists had expected. A further rate rise is expected next month.

“The central bank acted correctly, but it cannot stop there. It is important not to be too lenient in dealing with this,” said Castelar.

Silvia Matos, a co-ordinator at the Brazilian Economy Institute, also pointed to Brazil’s weakening currency as a contributing factor to inflation. But she said the slide in the real was triggered by investor concerns over Brazil’s deteriorating public finances.

Following the creation of two separate stimulus packages to mitigate the impact of Covid-19, government debt has risen to about 90 per cent of gross domestic product, a high level for an emerging market economy.

The rollout of the second of these packages began this month, with 45m Brazilians set to receive $50 a month for four months.

Critics said, however, these stipends were not nearly enough to keep people both fed and at home in lockdown.

“It is essential that the emergency aid is of a greater value, so that people do not leave the house but no one also stays at home starving,” said Marcelo Freixo, a federal lawmaker with the leftwing PSOL party.

“We need to reduce the circulation of the disease. Brazil is already experiencing 4,000 deaths per day. We will reach 500,000 total deaths by the middle of the year.”

Matos says that inflation had hit poorer citizens much harder than middle-class and rich Brazilians because a larger portion of their income was dedicated to food, the price of which has increased substantially.

“The only thing that could help right now is to get out of this pandemic,” she said.

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Can CVC pull off a $20bn ‘deal of the century’ at Toshiba?

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Proposed management buyout looks like an improbable win for the Japanese conglomerate’s embattled CEO



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