Beijing’s Big Bet in Hong Kong

When Beijing retook control of Hong Kong from the British 23 years ago, the understanding was that Hong Kong would maintain a high degree of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework for a period of 50 years. On Tuesday, the Communist Party of China declared that that time was up. And it did so with striking ease. There was no bloody Tiananmen-style showdown between the army and pro-democracy protesters; no tanks inside Victoria Park. Beijing merely had its rubber-stamp legislature unanimously approve a sweeping national security law – one first announced just a month ago and never released for public comment – bypassing the Hong Kong legislature in violation of the city’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law. The move presages a dramatic deterioration of political freedoms in Hong Kong. The security law, which will be enforced by separate courts and security forces effectively controlled by Beijing, is conspicuously broad, meaning things like peaceful pro-democracy protests, anti-CPC editorials and school curricula that don’t toe the party line could realistically be defined as “separatism, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference.” At minimum, uncertainty about how the law will be enforced will have a chilling effect on civil society in Hong […]

Daily Memo: One Country, One System?

“One country, two systems” circles the drain. On Tuesday, China’s National People’s Congress voted unanimously to pass the contentious new Hong Kong national security legislation. President Xi Jinping reportedly signed the bill, which has still not been made public but is expected to be written in a way that would effectively outlaw pro-democracy protests and anti-Communist Party media, into law shortly thereafter. This comes two days after Hong Kong police detained at least 53 people — some of them reportedly bystanders — at a rally opposing the law, and a day before Hong Kong’s annual July 1 mass pro-democracy march (which Hong Kong police have banned, conveniently on the grounds of COVID-19). The pro-democracy community in Hong Kong is understandably freaking out. For example, Demosisto, a prominent advocacy group behind some of the past year’s protests, announced that it would disband. Several other civil society groups have announced similar moves. Activists are also reportedly scrambling to delete social media posts that could prove incriminating. This speaks to a core goal of the law: to get Hong Kongers to start censoring themselves and think twice before criticizing the Chinese Communist Party, effectively allowing Beijing to stifle dissent without having to take […]

The ‘Spies and Commandos’ of Afghanistan

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The media exploded late last week with reports that Russia had paid the Taliban bounties to kill U.S. and Afghan troops. The plot was...

Daily Memo: Contests for Influence in Iraq and the South China...

Iran’s diminished influence. Iranian influence in Iraq suffered a major blow after Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi directed a raid last week on a Kataib Hezbollah post, leading to the arrest of over a dozen fighters and the confiscation of weapons systems. Several Iran-backed militias have accused the U.S. and Iraq of fomenting division, but the Iranian government itself has been careful not to publicly incite further tensions with Iraq. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, for example, said that the raid was an internal Iraqi affair and that Iran has no comment. At the same time, Tehran issued arrest warrants for U.S. President Donald Trump and 30 other U.S. officials for their involvement in the Jan. 3 killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Iraq. It also asked Interpol to honor the warrants. The Iranian government knows nothing will come of this, but it intends for the request to serve as a warning against U.S. interference in Iraq. The COVID-19 crisis and U.S. sanctions continue to hamper Iran’s ability to finance its militias and political proxies in Iraq. After billions of dollars in Iranian central bank assets were frozen under U.S. sanctions and the Iranian rial fell to its lowest level […]

The Caesar Act and Assad’s Moment of Reckoning

Last December, U.S. President Donald Trump signed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act – with strong bipartisan Congressional support – to hold the Syrian regime accountable for atrocities committed by security forces against protesters who demanded political reforms. The measure was born from a report prepared by the Syria Study Group of the United States Institute of Peace arguing that to safeguard its national security, the U.S. ought to quit downplaying its role in shaping the outcome of the Syrian conflict. The report rejected Bashar Assad’s claim that his government had won the war and that the world must accept its legitimacy as the sole representative of the Syrian people. The Caesar Act took effect earlier this month as the familiar battle lines in the war are wearing down. Russia has consolidated its naval and air presence along the coast and reached terms with Turkey to de-escalate tensions in northwestern Syria. The Kurds control most of the northeast. The Islamic State is defeated, and its remnants have gone underground. The U.S. has been criticized for years for being able to articulate what it didn’t want in Syria but never what it wanted. The Caesar Act means to fix this, not […]

Daily Memo: Russo-Indian Defense Deals, Iraq Cracks Down on Iranian Influence

Russia and India pick up the pace. The Russian government will accelerate implementation of a defense contract with India that includes delivery of five S-400 air defense systems, according to the Russian newspaper Kommersant. New Delhi was originally set to receive the first S-400 in 2021, but after a three-day visit to Moscow by India’s defense minister, India now expects initial delivery by the end of this year. Russia and India are also intensifying negotiations over a contract for the supply of 21 MiG-29 fighters and 12 Su-30MKI fighters – an arrangement estimated to be worth $650 million. New Delhi is concerned with preserving the long-term balance of power on two borders simultaneously – with China and with Pakistan, both of which are accelerating the modernization of their air forces – and thus wants to pick up the pace of the Russian defense deals. Iraq gets tough on Iranian influence. Iraqi security forces carried out an overnight raid in southern Baghdad of the headquarters of an influential Iranian-backed militia, Kataib Hezbollah. They confiscated rocket launchers and detained over a dozen fighters for their alleged involvement in missile attacks on U.S. and coalition bases over the past year. Though the Iraqi government said […]

India Rising

India’s days as a fairly quiet giant on the world stage are coming to an end. For much of the 21st century, India has punched well below its weight in international affairs. It is the seventh-largest country in the world by area and has the second-largest population, with nearly 1.38 billion inhabitants. Considering its younger demographics, it’s on pace to soon surpass China as the largest country in the world by population. Its economy has steadily climbed in the global ranks over the past two decades and now stands as the fifth-largest. It’s a major energy consumer, and its naval potential could affect China’s power projection capabilities. But the country has so far been unable to drive global events or influence the actions of global players like the United States, Germany, Russia and China to any substantial degree. This appears to be changing, however. The global center of gravity, both militarily and economically, is shifting from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific, bringing India front and center in world affairs. Considering that this comes at a time when India’s relative power is increasing, it appears that the country is set to earn a more prominent role in the international system. […]

Daily Memo: IMF Warnings, Japanese Defenses

Lebanon’s economic woes. The International Monetary Fund has warned that Lebanon’s central bank has accumulated $49 billion in losses due to defaults on bond holdings and the falling value of the country’s currency. The country appears headed toward hyperinflation; in some areas of Lebanon, the Lebanese currency is now trading at 7,000 lira to the dollar. (Officially, the lira is pegged at 1,507.5 to the dollar and has lost over 75 percent of its value since October.) Some people are trying to use this as an opportunity to turn a profit by selling newly purchased dollars at the higher exchange rate at currency shops. On Wednesday, the Lebanese parliament began reviewing steps to declare a financial state of emergency to protect the lira. Parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri warned that Lebanon wouldn’t receive “one penny” in aid from outside actors if it didn’t implement serious political and economic reforms. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed that sentiment on Thursday, saying the U.S. was prepared to offer its support on the condition that Lebanon carries out national reforms. The U.S. also indicated that the IMF would provide assistance only if Lebanon enacted internal reforms. Tokyo reconsiders its defense systems. Japan is […]

Daily Memo: North Korea Backs Down, Putin Promises Changes

Kim backs down. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un suspended plans for “military action” against South Korea, per state media on Wednesday. North Korea also reportedly began taking down loudspeakers blasting propaganda toward the South – something that doesn’t particularly bother Seoul but that drives Pyongyang batty when South Korea cranks up its own loudspeakers. This caps several weeks of hostility from the North toward Seoul, ostensibly over the launching of balloons carrying food and anti-Kim propaganda across the Demilitarized Zone by activists in the South. The North’s recent moves have been peculiar, to say the least, but point mostly toward internal stresses. The most likely explanation was that Kim was trying to help his sister, Kim Yo Jong, consolidate some power, as his alleged health problems over the past few months exposed how unprepared the regime is for an untimely demise by the leader. When the regime gets preoccupied with power struggles in the capital, it often makes a big show of external hostility in order to both impress the masses at home and warn outside powers against any attempts at political meddling. Meanwhile, North Korea is widely believed to be under immense economic pressure. (China is reportedly quietly […]

Will the Coronavirus Forge a Brave New World?

Of all the major geopolitical players on the planet, Mother Nature may be the toughest adversary. Nature has neither imperatives nor constraints to guide its behavior. Rather, it operates off general patterns that occur under various conditions. While the patterns provide broad strokes of expected behavior, it strikes mostly randomly. Even predictable phenomena, such as the Atlantic hurricane season, tell us nothing about the magnitude and target of, or potential for, economic damage. A catastrophic Category 5 hurricane that misses major population centers is quickly forgotten; a milder Category 3 hurricane that decimates New Orleans has long-lasting consequences. Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by a novel coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2, was a predictable phenomenon. Modern disease outbreaks allow scientists to detect patterns, even if they cannot precisely predict what, when, where and how an outbreak might occur. For decades, microbiologists and epidemiologists have warned about an influenza pandemic. These occur with some regularity; the previous four were in 1918, 1957, 1968 and 2009. But while public health officials were fixated on the flu, a deadly new virus was percolating in China. By the time the biomedical community fully grasped the severity of the disease, it was too late. It had […]

Daily Memo: India and China Pull Back From the Brink

Cooler heads in the Himalayas. India and China on Tuesday agreed on a set of “modalities for disengagement from all friction areas in eastern Ladakh” in the Himalayas, per a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement and unnamed Indian government sources. Few details of the pullback have been released. As we’ve discussed, the unforgiving geography of the Himalayas strictly limits on the ability of either side to escalate matters along the Line of Actual Control itself – making it relatively easy for cooler heads to prevail. But that doesn’t mean the clashes can’t lead to indirect escalation elsewhere. India, for example, is pushing through a bevy of new restrictions on doing business with Chinese firms amid widespread public calls for a boycott targeting Chinese goods. New Delhi is reportedly reconsidering its reluctance to ban Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE from its 5G buildout. On the military front, India has reportedly asked Russia – for years, India’s foremost arms supplier – to expedite deliveries of new fighter jets and S-400 missile defense systems. Either way, Chinese pressure in the Himalayas isn’t about to go away. On a related note, Nepal’s government is reportedly concerned that China’s rerouting of rivers in Tibet will […]

Putin’s New History of Europe and the Rehabilitation of Stalin

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Russian President Vladimir Putin likes to argue that World War II, and much of the suffering wrought by it, was the responsibility not just...