Trump didn’t have the best relationship with China. He was forceful and not afraid to show a defensive stance to the powerful country. This can be analysed for having both positive and negative implications. On the one hand Trump didn’t give in to China’s power, which arguably previous presidencies have been more lenient. However, on the other hand the previous president didn’t have the diplomacy to match. Many have questioned if Biden’s administration, in particular the Chinese Government itself, will have a similar straight forward approach.
On Sunday the 7th of March, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, warned Biden to not continue the former president Donald Trump’s “dangerous practice” of showing support for Taiwan. Additionally, Wang said “The Chinese government has no room for compromise” and that the Biden administration should stay away from “crossing the line” and “playing with fire”. The controversial island of Taiwan is claimed by China as its own territory, but both the country itself and the US want to give the Taiwanese people their own freedom.
Since the statement from Wang, the US President has replied saying he wants a more civil relationship with Beijing, but has no sign of relaxing the former presidents practices of trade, technology and human rights. In fact, as recently as Tuesday the Biden administration concluded the first arms sales to the island and confirmed exports of key submarine technology. The new administration seems to be continuing the Trumps approach so far.
Wang hasn’t replied or shown the reaction from Beijing over Biden’s recent approach. However, what could happen if neither countries retreat? In the past, China has threatened to invade Taiwan and this could have been another warning in Wang’s recent speech. In fact, China’s excessive military growth despite its stagnant economic growth this year, due to the pandemic, emphasises the ever posing threat to both Taiwan and the US. China has claimed that its massive military is only for defensive purposes and not offensive, yet the International community doesn’t totally believe this. In fact US Adm. Philip Davidson, warned the US two days after Wang’s warnings, that this threat to Taiwan could happen within the next 6 years. Davison also argued that they should see China as “the greatest long-term strategic threat to security in the 21st century”. China’s military definitely doesn’t have the technological advancements as the US military. However, the US has 1.2 million military personnel, whereas China has 2.3 million. The US and its allies shouldn’t and don’t take China’s warnings lightly because quantity has a quality of its own.
However, the US is growing its allies and has invested a further $1.6 billion to the Aegis Ashore missile defence system for safety and security. The US has recently joined the Qaud group. The other three members are Australia, India and Japan. This a group of major democracies that are strengthening their allies in response to China’s growing influence in the region. China currently has disputes with all four of these democratic nations and with them forming an alliance will not sit well with the Chinese Government.
China definitely has the military power to cause a big conflict in Taiwan. However, with more and more enemies joining forces against China and the different political conflicts that can arise from them all, China’s growing security system might be for more defensive reasons than from a first glance. However, we shouldn’t forget that the Chinese threat is very real and they wouldn’t be afraid of committing. China is clearly still a competitor and not an advisory. If China and the US don’t come to some sort of peaceful agreement soon, over the independence of Taiwan, then a conflict between the nations could be even sooner than 6 years.
It might seem that from a westernised perspective, the race to obtain COVID-19 vaccines has been won by western nations. Yet, together with the UK, Canada, the USA and the EU, Chile has secured large doses per capita as well. Chile has ordered up to 90 million vaccine doses, which are more than enough to completely immunize the population of 19.2 million people.
Most of the administered vaccines so far were acquired from Sinovac of China. However, Chile’s ambassador in London, David Gallagher, has helped the country to secure vaccinations from AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson as well as from the global vaccine-supply programme, Covax.
Since the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship in 2019, Chile has been immersed in a socio-political crisis. The following government of Sebastián Piñera came under strain following the demonstrations and riots that exploded in October in reaction to Chile’s rising levels of economic and political injustice. Yet his more centrist approach to securing vaccinations has the ability to benefit both the country’s economy and its political situation prior to the 2020 elections.
Analysts have praised Chile’s foresight in negotiating vaccine agreements ahead of time, arranging clinical trials in exchange for earlier supplies at a lower cost. Before the start of the pandemic, several vaccine manufacturers were already in good relations with Chilean universities and hospitals.
Chile has provided far more vaccines than it needs to vaccinate the whole population. It aims to vaccinate 5 million citizens by April and 15 million people, or about 80% of the country, by July. However, medical experts in Chile have concerns about the Chinese Sinovac’s jabs efficacy compared to other vaccines. Despite these concerns, they emphasise the effectiveness of Chile’s long-standing vaccination programme, which has had widespread public support since its inception in the 1970s.
Frontline staff and the elderly have been given priority for the vaccination scheme, which was delivered free of charge. The central administration has also helped to streamline the procedure, as opposed to other countries where local or provincial authorities have been left to do so. Sinovac has been proven easy to distribute, especially to those isolated communities in unusually elongated territory, as it does not require to be stored at extremely low temperatures like some other vaccines.
The roll-out of the vaccine to the public is moving fast, having only begun in early February. The Chilean health sector has considerable expertise with mass immunization programs and a number of vaccination centres have been set up around the country to achieve this goal.
Chiles’ strong ability to secure enough vaccines might encourage neighbouring countries, which have not secured any vaccination schemes deal yet to do so. As a matter of fact, Uruguay will be the last South American country to start the vaccination plan.
Moreover, this might also encourage trade partners and new interested foreign investors to participate in the Chilean economy or engage more with the other Chilean economic sectors.
This vaccination campaign is supposed to help restore the economy after last year’s recession. For others, the main concern is what the effective introduction of the vaccine could mean for social cohesion in a country where tensions have been simmering since the protests that broke out in 2019.
In the United States, President Joe Biden has released his first military action seen in his presidency so far. In a powerful and co-ordinated attack, Biden had released an air strike all over facilities at a border control point in Syria aiming at Iran backed militia groups, killing at least 22 people in the process. As reported by militia officials only 1 person was killed but a war monitor has reported at least 22. Despite Biden’s strong intentions, his administration aims not to create any further tensions with Iran to secure a nuclear deal, but likewise, he will still not want to be resisting any threats to the US.
The response planned by the United States had resulted from a civilian contractor that had been killed in a rocket attack in Irbil on United States targets on 15th February 2021. Five other contractors had also been injured including a United States service member. A military base used by the US coalition had also been targeted during the attack.
As a result of this, ten days later, the US alongside consulting coalition partners, had constructed a missile strike in retaliation. Syria had condemned the attack, considering it as a “bad sign” for the administration. Their foreign ministry elaborated by stating that it “strongly condemns the cowardly American aggression”. Despite this, the strike had been carried out at the Syrian border between Boukamal and Qaim with the level of devastation expected from this type of attack.
The Pentagon’s location target of the attack was on Syrian facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iran-backed militia groups such as Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada of which allies with the Damascus government. Strikes had been reported by officials to of hit an area along the border of Boukamal and the Iraqi town of Qaim.
When compared to the previous administrations policies on attacks under the Donald Trump administration, Biden’s administration aimed to not escalate tensions with Iran, and simply punish the militias. This is due to President Biden wanting to instead aim to try and recreate discussions around a nuclear deal that had previously been abandoned. This deal was originally involved around a 2015 nuclear deal to limit its uranium enrichment and allow international inspectors to access areas of their nuclear facilities to check everything was under control. Trump had withdrawn from this deal, instating economic sanctions in an effort to negotiate a new accord. Now, under the Biden administration, he says that he will not lift the sanctions until the terms agreed under the 2015 deal are applied.
Despite Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby stating that the strike wasn’t designed to raise any aggression or tensions with Iran but instead create a detrimental effect on the militias, it does strike a clear message in the difference in attitudes compared to the Trump administration. President Joe Biden wants to explore and protect the chances of reviving his nuclear deal with Iran, but in doing so he also does not want Iran to get the impression that threats such as Iran-backed militias can continue to cause problems and that he will allow these dangerous groups to continue.
On February the first the ruling democratic government in Myanmar was overthrown by the country’s military. The National League for Democracy (NLD) had governed Myanmar since 2015 and were re-elected in November of 2020 with a landslide victory. This victory was so comprehensive, the military felt their political future was in threat and that the NLD may use their large parliamentary majority to ban the military’s involvement in politics. Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the NLD party, and a number of other NLD politicians have been imprisoned as the coup began, military rule has been imposed and there have been widespread internet outages and press censorship.
Myanmar’s military ruled the country between 1962 and 2011. After many years of sanctions and internal unrest they began to move towards democracy with a series of reforms that culminated in the 2015 election of the NLD party. Since 2015 the military have retained an important role in political affairs by holding a minority number of seats in parliament as part of the initial agreement to hold democratic elections. Local analysts have cited that fears that this agreement would be changed were a major motivation behind the coup.
The public reaction to the coup has been one of shock and anger. Protests against the military regime are widespread and ongoing. The protest movement started slowly, with a “noise making” campaign that involved people banging on pots and pans at a certain time of day. But it has evolved over the month to include a general strike of civil servants and many other key workers. As the protests have increased in size the military’s response has increased in violence. Several protesters have been killed by government forces, some accidentally with rubber bullets, but others have been shot with live ammunition. At the time of writing, this increase in violence has not deterred those protesting and it seems highly likely protests will continue in March unless the military make concessions.
Local international reaction has been mixed. Given the authoritarian nature of many of the countries in ASEAN, and those bordering Myanmar, it is unlikely that any serious sanctions will be levied at the new regime locally. Thailand in particular are highly unlikely to want to be seen promoting the democratic process overseas while repressing their own pro-democracy protests. The same can be said of Cambodia, who have recently convicted in absentia the leader of their banned opposition party the CNRP. China referred to the coup as a “cabinet reshuffle”, and Malaysia took the opportunity to return 1,000 Myanmar refugees on boats arranged by the military. So, it is highly likely that if the military can suppress internal opposition without violence spilling over international borders, the status quo will be accepted by countries in the region.
International condemnation of the coup has been much stronger than local statements, but again it seems unlikely that any real pressure will be put on the military to step down beyond sanctions. As is often the case in Southeast Asia, China is a major consideration. China have developed relationships with Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Indonesia by turning a blind eye to how these countries are internally governed. This has allowed China to build good diplomatic and economic relationship with several ASEAN countries. While Biden’s presidency has yet to establish a clear policy for the region it seems unlikely that regime change in Myanmar will be seriously pushed by the international community because doing so may make a number of US allies (particularly Thailand and the Philippines) feel uncomfortable. But again, this is dependent on how quickly the military can suppress internal resistance. Since the recent protests have taken a more violent turn, the US have promised increased pressure on the military junta, but it is as yet unclear what shape that will take. Throughout the 1980s and 90s Myanmar was heavily sanctioned by the West, and while living standards fell considerably in the country for ordinary Myanmar citizens, there was little effect seen on the ruling elite.
The State of Kuwait is a tiny, oil rich country located at the top of the plentiful Gulf region. The tiny emirate is known for its very stable, commode way of life, and its liberal political system. However, in more recent times the small emirate has trended in the direction of instability. The most notable area Kuwaiti instability is the volatility of its politics. Kuwait is infamous for changing governments and politicians as regularly as one changes t-shirts. However, the past couple of months have been especially unstable. Firstly, two thirds of the National Assembly got replaced overnight in an election – a normal, routine part of any functioning democracy – or in Kuwait’s case, semi-democracy. The real problems however started once the Emir appointed the Prime Minister, who went on to appoint his government, the Council of Ministers.
The new parliamentarians disliked the Prime Minister for his actions and for his ministerial choices – the latter which they saw as not being representative of those elected by the people. This led to 60 percent of them backing a vote of no-confidence to question the Prime Minister on a number of issues and decisions. It should be noted the senior government positions in Kuwait are generally occupied by members of Kuwait’s ruling family. Many of the new parliamentarians are not fans of this system, and are seeking political reform of what they perceive to be corruption. This in itself is a risk – even if it might have positive consequence for Kuwaiti democracy – as the ruling family is well entrenched in Kuwaiti society.
However to make matters worse, last month the Council of Ministers collectively submitted their resignation to the Emir, and in response the Emir accepted them and acted to dissolve the government. Meanwhile a caretaker government led by the Deputy Prime Minster was in place, and in late February the Emir suspended the National Assembly for one month – a testament to the power of the Emir and the limitations of parliament. However, in the first few days of March the Emir has reappointed the Prime Minister (again), and the latter is now sanctioned to pick his cabinet – which he has done. That is where Kuwait is today.
As it stands, with the new government the Prime Minister has in part picked safe, popular appointments to the cabinet, appeasing parliamentarians. This should go some of the way towards repairing the rift between the executive and legislative branches of Kuwaiti politics, but is seemingly a temporary fix. This is evident in the presence of some former cabinet members in the new government – call it a dash of nepotism in the new government’s ranks. With the latter, parliamentarians are likely not thrilled with the lacklustre changes to government. Therefore the challenge of the Prime Minister is to keep his cabinet together first and foremost, and then he has to work on maintaining a working relationship with parliamentarians by being professional and as transparent as can be, attending to their concerns as representatives of the people…So as to ensure the same situation does not play out.
Another manifestation of instability is the debt situation and liquidity crisis. The state has experienced serious economic problems due to both the oil crisis and the impact on the global Coronavirus pandemic. Lower oil prices in the region have meant Kuwait’s oil revenue has significantly decreased. Kuwait’s economy is dependent on oil, and uses such revenue to do such things as pay the salaries of working Kuwaitis and as long-term assets. Additionally, the global pandemic has negatively affected oil production and exports – mainly due to the virus’s impact on global supply chains, as well as the labour markets. Other oil economies in the Gulf region have chosen to borrow money in order to boost economy, as opposed to be reliant on the sector.
Meanwhile, Kuwait has been looking for a way to plug its deficit. The National Assembly has sought to pass legislation to allow the government to borrow money from its Future Generations Fund to offset the deficit. However, the legislation has stalled due to the rift between legislative and executive – leaving this option off the table, whilst the general reserve fund to pay the deficit grows smaller. It is possible though that should Kuwait be allowed to borrow, this would only buy Kuwait’s economy time – not permanently fix Kuwait’s long-term problems – and at worse, it will happen too late, once a financial crisis hits. Therefore, Kuwait might have to consider implementing structural reforms for the long-term health of the economy.
Meanwhile, if the crisis deepens past the point of no return, Kuwaitis would see their lifestyles drastically change overnight – with lower salaries for the foreseeable future, and their once assets secure now disposable. As with the liberal-democratic character of Kuwait’s parliament, Kuwaitis would likely take a stand to express their discontent with living under such conditions – with civil unrest on the cards, in protest against the government. This would neither be good for Kuwaiti society, nor the ruling family. The latter’s position would be insecure, and they would likely seek to enforce stability and secure their rule through greater authoritarianism.
Kuwait’s other options are: to transition to non-oil sectors; reduce government spending, and as a last resort to tap into the Future fund – should the deficit still stand, which it likely will. Of these options, altering government spending seems most achievable in the short term – albeit at the expense of wages and lavish lifestyles. However, transitioning to non-oil sectors would be more beneficial in the long-term and has great potential during the pandemic. Innovation in the global economy has been widespread across the world, as people seek to find new ways consuming and maximising their economic gains. As the oil sector wanes, Kuwaitis might seek to venture into newer sectors. The government would need to contribute to such endeavours through funding research and development – so as to drive innovation and make it more lucrative. Other GCC partners have invested in e-commerce, and therefore Kuwait might want to focus on acquiring or developing such assets in order to generate revenue and stabilise its economy.
There has also been some instability in the Kuwaiti ruling family. Kuwait last year experienced the loss of its ruling emir, Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah – who had been suffering from long-term health issues. The late emir had been flown to the United States to receive treatment from the Mayo Clinic, before he eventually passed away. He was then replaced by his brother, the Crown Prince of Kuwait Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah. The new emir has been ruling the country since September 2020, and thus is 5 months into his emirate. The transition of power has seemingly been smooth, however it is unclear how his rule will be if crises deepen. How the Emir handles himself will likely impact the national sentiment of Kuwaitis. The Emir has to lead by example and champion stability, otherwise his nation will grow more unstable. For this reason, it seems likely the Emir will continue to have dialogue with the executive and legislative branches, and will encourage them to work together – so as to steer Kuwait through difficult times.
One interesting development with the Emir though, is his recent trip to the United States for medical treatment. The 86-year-old is not a young man, and therefore there is a worry that the he is flying to the United States for health reasons, and no less at such a precarious time. However, Kuwait has insisted the Emir is merely travelling to the U.S. for “the usual check-ups,” without providing any more details on the matter. It could very well be the case that he is merely receiving a check-up, as over the years many Kuwaiti rulers have routinely flown there for treatment. The Emir himself has in the past reportedly been abroad for treatment before – once in Germany in 2013 for back surgery, and on at least one other occasion to the U.S. for medical tests.
But, the secretiveness of the matter could very well indicate Kuwait is trying to censor the real reason for seeking treatment in the U.S.: that the Emir has a pressing health concern best warrants an investigation, and at worst requires special treatment unavailable in his home country. It would also make sense why Kuwait would be reluctant to reveal if the Emir was ill, as the health of Kuwaiti rulers is a sensitive subject – especially considering the circumstances surrounding the death of the last emir. Therefore, if the Emir is ill expect Kuwait to control how much information it will give about this issue over time, or perhaps they will categorically deny it is the case. However, if the Emir is not ill, expect more transparency from the ruling family – so as to overtly reassure the public that his health is fine.